MIT Press November 15, 2005 DEMOCRATIC TOOLS: COMMUNITIES AND PRECAUTION [Published as chapter 4 of Nancy J. Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger, editors, Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005; ISBN 0-262-63323-X). By Maria B. Pellerano and Peter Montague In the United States, the precautionary principle may never be adopted as official national policy, as it has been in Europe. Even if it were, the history of past environmental legislation shows that official policy must be buttressed by shared values and intention. When the underlying values guiding policy oppose precaution, precautionary laws will be subverted, even if the letter of the law remains the same. In a "thin" democracy, citizens may be dismayed when this happens, but most will feel there is little they can do to influence the process. The remedy for thin democracy is "strong democracy" -- one in which citizens truly participate, at least some of the time, in the decisions that affect their lives. The precautionary principle challenges us to develop a strong democracy. The Wingspread version of the principle includes this important addendum: "The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic and must include potentially affected parties." Precautionary questions for communities Environmental problems are seldom confined to a single community, nor do communities have control over all the policies that affect them. Nevertheless, the best place to start building strong democracy is at the community level. Democracy boils down to a question of "Who gets to decide?" Communities must be able control their common assets (air, water, public spaces, transportation system, etc.) to the extent feasible if they are to exercise care for their future. Communities can prepare themselves to assert control over these assets by asking four basic questions. 1. What are the community's goals? A community can explore what it wants for itself environmentally, economically, and socially. Community members can ask what environmental resources they think are important to the community's existence. What kinds of jobs and businesses does the community want? What makes a business a good neighbor? What resources does the community have (and need) for attracting, or developing, those jobs? What are the community's social goals--good food, housing and medical care for everyone, access to an education, control of crime, and good quality of life? In exploring these questions community members can get very specific. For example, as part of the environmental question an urban community might ask how much green space we need to make our community livable and how far it should be from a typical home. (See the Awahnee Principles for community planning, Chapter 10, Appendix B.) By asking these questions a community gets a good sense of itself. It also gets a sense of the diversity of needs within the community. 2. What does the community perceive as a harm or potential harm? This question can be asked every time a community thinks there is harm or the potential for harm. This question could be asked about an environmental, economic, or social harm. An environmental harm might be pollution from a facility within the community or a proposal for a highway that will cut through the community. An economic harm might be the closing of a local business because the owner is retiring, or the takeover of a local bank by a megabank with no interest in the local community. A social harm might be the closing of a local elementary school or the loss of a community meeting place because a developer bought the meeting place to build condos. 3. Who knows what, and what is not known? These questions follow the previous question about a specific harm. For any proposal affecting the life of the community, the community should understand who within and outside the community has information. Who knows about this proposal? What do they know about it? Who endorses this proposal? Who is against it? For each of these questions the community should also be looking at who does not know the answers or have information and what is not known. By asking these questions community members might find out that the chamber of commerce from community B proposed a highway for community A to keep the highway out of community B; a local community developer favors the highway because he believes that dividing the community will make it easier for him to put in new housing; and that the city wants the highway so that it can relieve traffic in a wealthier community nearby. They also might learn that residents of a local apartment building were unaware that their homes are going to be demolished to make room for the highway; that no one knows how many lanes or how much traffic or how much pollution this highway will entail; and that contracts are being let out for bid even though the community has never been consulted. 4. What solutions can the community identify? The community can create its own solutions for a particular harm by considering all the alternatives including the alternative of doing nothing. It can be very important to reframe the question at this point and take a larger view. Take the example of putting a highway through a community. The city probably asked, where do we put this highway? The community might want to ask a different question: How do we alleviate traffic congestion in the least polluting and disruptive manner? Answering this broader question might reveal the following alternatives: 1) going ahead with the plan as is; 2) not putting in any highway at all; 3) developing a non-polluting mass transit solution that would include stops throughout this community because the community is underserved by mass transit. Empowerment tools Throughout these discussions the community needs to be aware of who is at the table and who is not and how to get the most diverse group to participate. The following empowerment tools would be helpful for communities to make sure the people working on these issues reflect the diversity of the community and the many points of view that exist within a community. Community Asset Inventories Do you know what assets your community possesses? How many organizations, businesses, public institutions, religious institutions, schools exist within your community? Do you know how much real estate is owned by community members and how much is owned by outsiders? What are the revered spaces in your community (that local corner store or barber shop where people hang out and talk while they are getting their coffee or their hair trimmed; or the park with the gym set and basketball court that is used at least 12 hours a day). Developing an inventory of your community's assets will help you understand the diversity of your community and what people consider important to life in the community. There are simple ways to get this information and a number of guides to help you (see Kretzmann 1993). The best thing about this process is you can do it yourselves and get to know your neighbors at the same time. Community mapping Engage the community in a mapping project. You could actually develop picture maps of your community that show toxic emissions in relation to homes, schools, or day care facilities; natural resource treasures such as green spaces, creeks, or wooded areas; environmental health problems such as diabetes, asthma, or cancer; or local businesses and the number of jobs generated. These maps could be as simple as getting a paper map from your local government and putting colored dots on it or as sophisticated as using computer software (see Meuser in "Empowerment Tools" in the "Further Reading" section). This could be a great project for high school students. Community-Organized Opinion Polling Similar to asset inventorying, community polling allows the community to get information from a broad cross section of community members, learning what community members think about a particular issue. Hiring a polling firm is not necessary. Short, easy-to-answer surveys are not difficult to develop. For example, if community members were concerned about a proposed highway they could develop a simple poll based on the larger question of how to alleviate traffic in the least polluting and disruptive manner. Questions might include: 1) Are you concerned about a highway being built in the community? 2) If so, why? 3) Do you currently use mass transit? 4) If not, would you use it if there were a stop within five blocks of your home? The questions should be phrased so that the answers are either yes/no or simple multiple choice including the choice of "other" with space for an alternative not listed on the poll. Such polls could be distributed to churches, civic organizations, and schools. You might even get a high school teacher to engage students in developing the poll. Drafting Goals with Local/State Agencies A community could develop five- or ten-year goals with the help of a public agency around a specific environmental, economic, or social issue. For example, you could develop ten- year environmental health goals or five-year goals for the local public schools. The community would make sure that meetings were held throughout the community at various times and places so that as many people as possible could participate. There should be a process in which everyone gets a chance to brainstorm ideas and then another process to debate the ideas and pick those that you come to consensus on. Future Search Future Search is another technique that would be useful for goal setting. This is a structured 3-day process involving about 65 people chosen to represent all parts of the community. The goal is to reach agreement on solutions to a specific problem, such as "Affordable housing in our county." The technique has had remarkable success in many different settings. It takes at least six months to plan a successful Future Search. The process helps diverse stakeholders discover values, purposes, and projects together and enables groups to start working toward their desired future right away. Four core principles underpin successful Future Searches: 1. Every community or organization is part of a whole system, so in order to do any planning the whole system must be in the room. 2. You have to explore the "whole elephant" (system) before trying to fix any part. 3. You have to focus on the things that you agree on and set aside problems and conflicts, treating them as information rather than action items. 4. Participants have to manage themselves and take responsibility before, during, and after the Future Search. Each Future Search is carefully designed so that diverse stakeholders participate throughout the planning process and at the Future Search, where ideally there are eight people working in eight different stakeholder groups. Initially participants review the past by looking at key events in the world, their own lives, and in the history of the Future Search topic. Then they look at the present, particularly the trends affecting them, what they are currently doing about the key trends, and what they are currently proud of and sorry for when dealing with these trends. Lastly participants find common ground and volunteer to take next steps. (See Weisbord and Janoff 2000.) Independent Editorial Page in Local Newspaper Community organizations could try to get their local newspaper to host an independent editorial page. An editor, elected by organizations throughout the community, would manage this page, filling it with news and commentary not normally covered in the newspaper and of interest to local citizens. The newspaper could run a disclaimer about the page so that they would be freed of criticism for its content. Funding for the page could either come from a small tax or from a blind trust set up specifically for the page. Working with government agencies and officials Once the community is organized and understands what it wants, it can start to work with government agencies and officials. Here are a few things to think about when working with local governments: In an effort to get diverse representation, everyone needs to understand what it takes for people to really participate. This includes financial compensation for time, child care while attending meetings, transportation to meetings, translation services (and perhaps other things). Government officials and corporate representatives are earning their living while attending meetings; they should not expect community representatives to donate their time and energy. Government officials can travel to communities for meetings rather than having community members always make the trek to some high rise in the middle of the city. This serves two purposes: it increases community participation and it allows government officials to experience the community first-hand. Suddenly the apartment building slated for demolition or the polluting power plant becomes real and not just a statistic on a piece of paper. Most importantly, the community can work with government officials to correctly frame the questions. A narrow question -- such as where do we put the incinerator? -- can be reframed as a broader question, what should we do with our garbage? Or how do we reduce the amount of garbage we create? When you ask a broader question you are likely to get a broader range of answers. Of course the more diverse the group answering the question, the more diverse the answers will be. Participatory tools available to governments to implement the precautionary principle Governments can change the traditional way of interacting with citizens. In the current system decisions are often made by a small group of people, then announced to communities after the fact. If communities want to modify a proposal, they often have to engage in long, expensive legal or political battles. This embitters people, undermines their faith in government, and causes many to stop participating. So our environments, communities, and health continue to deteriorate. It is important for governments to start engaging citizens differently because it is the right thing to do in a democracy and because engaged citizens can prevent expensive problems associated with the decline of communities. Governments can genuinely engage citizens using one or more of the following participatory tools. Some of these tools are already in use but need to be reworked to involve a diverse citizenry more deeply. Some are appropriate for use on regional and national issues as well as local ones. Citizen Advisory Committees Many government agencies use these committees to help with decision- making on a variety of issues (transportation, education, policing, housing, art, etc.). In principle these committees are a good idea but historically in some communities they have been ineffective for various reasons (limits on the issues they can address; politically appointed membership, lack of true representation of a community; set up to rubber stamp decisions already made; heavy influence from corporate representatives; limited input from citizens who are not members of the committee). Government agencies could work with communities to redesign advisory committees so that the community gets to appoint the members, the committee itself gets to decide which issues it will address and how to get broader community input before making final decisions. Community Councils Councils modeled after watershed councils could be developed to advise town and city governments on policies that affect communities. Like the watershed councils these community councils would be composed only of local people who either live or work in the community and would include business people, private land/home owners, renters, activists, and ordinary citizens. The council's role would be to educate people about citizenship within their community; make recommendations to resolve disputes affecting the local community; carry out community enhancement projects such as turning a vacant lot into a community garden and meeting space; and help coordinate goal setting by the community. These councils should be funded using local/state taxes, a mechanism used by many watershed councils (see Prugh et al. 2000). These councils would be different from citizen advisory committees because they would look at the community as a whole and as part of a larger region rather than focusing on a single aspect such as transportation or education. Consensus Conferences Originally developed by the National Institutes of Health to produce consensus statements on controversial medical topics, consensus conferences are now being used by European governments to reach consensus on controversial issues (for example, genetically altering livestock, telecommunications policy, or use of transplants in medicine). The conference is managed by a steering committee that chooses 15 volunteer participants who lack significant prior knowledge about the issue. Working with a skilled facilitator, the lay panel discusses a background paper on the subject and formulates questions for the public forum. The government agency sponsoring the conference assembles an expert panel including scientific, technical, social, and ethics experts and stakeholders from unions, industry, and environmental organizations. The lay panel then reviews more agency- provided background papers, asks more questions, and suggests additions and deletions to the expert panel. During the concluding four-day public forum, the experts make presentations and answer questions from the lay panel and sometimes from the audience. The lay panel deliberates and then cross-examines the expert panel to fill in information gaps and to clarify areas of disagreement. The lay panel then writes a report, summarizing the issues on which it has achieved consensus and identifying points of disagreement. Results of the panel are widely distributed to the media and local hearings are held to stimulate informed public debate, help citizens understand the issues, and influence decision-makers. As with all these processes, serious effort is needed to insure diverse representation. (Sclove 2001) The Jefferson Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has trademarked a similar process called "Citizen Jury." Through polling the Center randomly selects a panel of 18 jurors who are supposed to represent the community. The jury is asked to study a particular public issue (for example, solid waste, traffic congestion, or physician-assisted suicide); the jury meets for four or five days to hear "expert witnesses" with a range of views on the issue; deliberates; and then presents its recommendations to the public. Early Warning Networks These networks have been developed by non-profit organizations to warn communities when local companies may be shutting down. The Center for Labor & Community Research in Chicago works with communities to develop early warning systems for economic transitions that might cause job loss, for example, when an elderly owner retires and no one in her family wants to take over the business or when a company A is purchased by company B, which intends to shut down company A. The early warning network is a coalition of community, labor, religious institutions, government, and local business representatives. The network proactively looks for companies that are in danger of shutting down and with the community devises plans to keep that from happening.(Swinney 1999) Recently the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has developed an early warning system to identify emerging public health problems, based on the long-established practice of "alert practitioners" who observe unusual events or emerging trends. Members of the public can ask the Emerging Issues Advisory Group to research a particular public health problem. The Advisory Group will evaluate and make recommendations to the MDH about issues that are general public health problems, have risk of serious and/or irreversible harm, affect children and other vulnerable populations, and have feasible interventions. (MDH 2001) Future efforts may extend this by establishing mechanisms that scan for new patterns of emerging problems. Scenario workshops Developed in Europe, this process allows communities and government agencies to look at alternative ways to solve a problem. For example let's say that the problem is what to do with household sewage and wastewater because the sewage treatment plant will be inadequate in 10 years. The four scenarios are: * The government deals with this problem without input from citizens; * Every household is required to deal with its own sewage, meeting public health standards, but without government help; * Each individual household negotiates a solution directly with local government; or * Local residents cooperate with each other and, as a group, negotiate a solution with local government. For each of these scenarios detailed alternatives are developed that include who does what and how it gets done. Then a participatory group of citizens and stakeholders provide a critical analysis of each scenario including barriers to success, how these barriers might be overcome, and how the scenario fits in with the goals of the community. They can also ask questions and suggest combining pieces of one scenario with pieces of others to meet the community's goals. (Sclove 1999) Note that this technique assumes that the community already has stated goals for its future. This chapter was written by Maria B. Pellerano and Peter Montague, Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, NJ 08903-0160; phone: (732)828-9995; faxa; (732)791-4603 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: http://www.rachel.org. If you would like to suggest additions to the "Empowerment Tools" and/ or "Participatory Tools" sections, please send them to Maria B. Pellerano at the above addresses. Further Reading Civic participation Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000; ISBN 0-684-83283-6. In this book, Robert Putnam looks at trends of civic engagement. He not only examines such things such as campaigning and voting but also participation in community organizations, letter writing, and card games. Democracy Prugh, Thomas, Robert Costanza,and Herman Daly, The Local Politics of Global Sustainability. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000; ISBN 1-55963-744-7. This book examines the importance of "strong" democracy to sustainability. It includes a clear interpretation of Benjamin Barber's work on strong democracy. Empowerment tools Future Search Network. Future Search Conferences. This web site provides information on Future Search conferences and the Future Search network. For more information on Future Search see the book listed below by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. Kretzmann, John P. and John L. McKnight, Building Communities From the Inside Out; A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University, Institute for Public Research, The Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 1993. [Distributed by ACTA Publications, 4848 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640; phone: (800) 397-2282.] This is the most general of the many publications put out by the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. This book provides important checklists that can help you start inventorying your community's assets. See the ABCD web site for more specific workbooks such as those that help you inventory economic assets, consumer expenditures, and community members' skills. Meuser, Michael R. MapCruzin Map Tutorial and Atlas. Learn to map and gain access to free mapping software on this website. Weisbord, Marvin and Sandra Janoff. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations & Communities (Second edition). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000; ISBN 1-57675-081-7. This book explains the future search process with step-by-step guidelines for planning, facilitating, and following up a future search conference. Participatory Tools Jefferson Center, The Citizens Jury Process. This web site explains the Citizens Jury Process as designed by the Jefferson Center. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), "Emerging Issues Advisory Group to the Minnesota Department of Health DRAFT." St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Department of Health, July 17, 2001. Available from the Emerging Issues Advisory Group, Minnesota Department of Health, P.O. Box 64975, St. Paul, MN, 55164-0975; telephone: (651) 215-5800. This paper lays out the structure of this early warning network. Sclove, Richard E. "Democratic Politics of Technology: The Missing Half, Using Democratic Criteria in Participatory Technology Decisions." Amherst, Mass.: The Loka Institute, 1999. Available from The Loka Institute web site or P.O. Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004. This publication explains how scenario workshops are conducted in Europe. Sclove, Richard E. "Town Meetings on Technology." Amherst, Mass.: The Loka Institute, 2001. Available at The Loka Institute web site or P.O. Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004. This publication explains how to conduct a consensus conference. Swinney, Dan. "Early Warning Systems: A Proactive Economic Strategy for Labour in the Local Economy." Chicago: Center for Labor & Community Research, 1999. This article originally appeared in the South Africa Labour Bulletin and is available in html here and in PDF here. This article explains how Early Warning Systems can predict and prevent job loss. Tickner, Joel A. "Democratic Participation: A Critical Element of Precautionary Public Health Decision-Making," New Solutions vol. 11, no. 2 (2001), pages 93-111.This publication reviews several methods of democratic decision-making including citizen advisory committees, citizen juries, consensus conferences, and scenario workshops.