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Thought Zoom Would Save Local Democracy? It Hasn’t.

Taking public meetings online was supposed to broaden civic engagement, but little has changed: The same vocal residents, interest groups and activists still dominate them. We need to find better ways.

The Georgetown City Council conducting a public meeting in Georgetown, Texas.
The Georgetown City Council in Georgetown, Texas, discusses the proposed budget at a meeting that includes online participation.
(Andy Sharp/For Statesman/TNS)
Maybe you’ve seen yard signs or mailers inviting you to a “neighborhood meeting” or a “hearing for changing CS and CL to SP zoning” or some other hyperlocal matter. But if we’re honest, the typical American rarely shows up at these community gatherings; they’re usually hard to attend, understand or even care about, and new evidence suggests that taking them online has done little to fix this. That’s a problem if we care about community voices being heard.

Civic engagement is seen as critical to local democracy. Ideally, neighbors inform elected officials and appointed leaders on decisions that affect the community. Local hearings and neighborhood meetings are one highly visible form of civic input; untold thousands of such gatherings occur across America every week. Town meetings are the primary school of liberty, at least according to Alexis de Tocqueville.

But today, civic engagement is broken. Local institutions designed to increase democratic responsiveness continue to empower a narrow slice of the community that is on average older, whiter and wealthier. Too often, they enable regulatory capture by similarly unrepresentative activists and interest groups. The upshot is less local representation and, more specifically, opposition to growth that leads to ever-higher housing prices.

Zoom and other online platforms were supposed to help matters. When local hearings went online during the pandemic, observers applauded this “better way to do public business.” But new research from Boston University’s Katherine Einstein and her co-authors found that moving housing hearings online in Massachusetts “did not remedy systemic skews in participation.”

Relative to all voters in the community, online participants in local hearings in Massachusetts during the pandemic were whiter (by a 13 percent margin), older (22 percent likelier to be over the age of 50) and more likely to be homeowners than renters (a 25 percent gap). These gaps are roughly the same as Einstein and her co-authors observed with in-person housing meetings pre-pandemic. The only difference is that partisanship went up on Zoom: Republicans were less likely to participate in local meetings online.

Pre-Zoom, the people who took a turn at the microphone were highly likely to live near whatever was being proposed; half of all attendees at local housing-approval meetings lived on the same block as proposed developments. Many were regulars too, showing up again and again, or clearly experts in local laws and regulations. Yet the decisions being made at these hearings impacted the wider community who barely had a voice or the time to spare. And when local news is dying off and our lives are busier than ever, how was the average person supposed to knowledgeably participate anyway?

This is a problem when half of all mayors say neighborhood meetings are among the top two ways they learn what their constituents think. And, as the Einstein report summarizes, scholars continue to claim that “institutions that support neighborhood-based political participation help provide voice to underrepresented groups, enhance citizen efficacy, and are integral to a thriving democracy.”

It was only by 1976 that all 50 states had enacted open-meeting laws, giving the public the right to attend, though not necessarily to speak, when governments gathered. Many local zoning codes, such as in San Francisco, go further by mandating public input throughout the development process. Public hearings in Massachusetts, much as in the rest of the country, come with requirements to send mailers to narrow lists of neighbors and to post notices in newspapers and “conspicuous places.”

Public engagement is designed for the public to, well, engage. And when they don’t — or can’t because they’re raising families and working at their jobs, or lack the technology to participate — interest groups and activists fill the void. Let’s not kid ourselves: This is exclusion masquerading as participation. The professionalization of community input favors the narrow interests of those who can afford lobbyists or take the time to organize activists. Put another way, participatory democracy is becoming a vehicle for regulatory capture, when agencies become dominated by the interests they regulate.

And there are consequences to regulatory capture by a narrow slice of locals. At a time when it’s harder than ever for hard-working Americans and families to find a house they can afford, it’s remarkable that nearly two-thirds of those who participate in community meetings oppose zoning and other changes that would increase the supply of desperately needed housing. According to Einstein and her colleagues, just 13 percent of online commentators supported the construction of new housing (compared to 14 percent in person), and this dynamic held even in communities where surveys showed that most voters supported building more housing.

There’s no shortage of ideas on how to improve civic engagement and participation in local government. Maybe we need to give more notice to more people, as Einstein suggests for renters in new developments. But local leaders should reckon with the disparities that have continued in the age of public Zoom, because they suggest that lowering barriers to participation by itself will not necessarily lead to more inclusive public engagement.

One idea is to channel public input into comprehensive plans that clearly set out what can be built citywide rather than handing out project-by-project vetoes or holding hearings for every little zoning change. Another is to leverage technology that facilitates constructive dialogue among a broad group of participants, like the online town hall software Prytaneum being developed by researchers out of the University of California, Riverside. Regardless, we should be working to improve local democracy generally, such as through on-cycle elections timed with national votes, so that input and accountability for local officials still comes through the ballot box, not just from the dais. The best reply to a broken participatory democracy is better representative government.

Most of all, local leaders should stop believing that neighbors will come to them; rather, it is they who should be going to the neighborhoods. Residents want to be heard: Just look at the parents speaking out at school board hearings across the country. And the relationship between citizens and government is strained. Endless public hearings and community meetings that hardly anyone shows up to are not the answer.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Michael Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. He can be reached at mhendrix@manhattan-institute.org or on Twitter at @michael_hendrix.
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