THE NEXT FORM OF DEMOCRACY: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance ... and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same

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THE NEXT FORM OF DEMOCRACY: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance ... and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same Matt Leighninger 296 pages (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006)

Reviewed by Mike Rotkin

This book describes a shift in American public life: a move away from rule by experts and elected representatives, and toward the direct involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their communities. Although there is certainly room for debate about the extent, significance, and future of this phenomenon, Matt Leighninger, the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, makes a compelling case that something new is, in fact, transforming the way in which decisions are made by local governments and school boards, and sometimes even at the state and national levels.

We are all familiar with the frustration involved in the typical public hearing. Individuals and community group representatives step up on the podium and share their responses to a proposed action - in under five minutes each. There is rarely a chance for dialogue. The participants wonder whether officials are listening. Even with governmental bodies that have reputations for being responsive to "citizen input," when controversial or unpopular proposals are on the table, open hostility and impatience are inevitable. This maddening process remains the most typical course for decision making in our country.

The problem is exacerbated by the growing tendency of public bodies to see their communities not as collections of citizens, but rather as individual consumers. They don't engage citizens as potentially active decision makers, but instead seek to meet their needs as consumers of high-quality services. The author describes this trend as consistent with the oft-noted depolitirization of American life, reflected in the steady decline in party affiliation, in electoral participation, and in participation in unions and service and recreational clubs.

Leighninger argues, however, that a countervailing tendency is developing in "shared governance." Although most of his case histories provide positive examples of what shared governance can accomplish, he's not afraid to share stories about limited successes or failures. Herein lies the strength of his book. Leighninger provides sufficient information for readers to draw their own conclusions about the significance of the transformation. In his vision, experiments in shared governance can and should move beyond short-term, single-goal efforts, toward the institutionalization of increased citizen control of the decision-making process.

Another strength of this book is Leighninger's excellent analysis of the issues that citizen empowerment efforts need to address if they are to be successful in recruiting mass participation and actually effect solutions to community problems. …