To Solve a Problem, We Need to Know It First: Using the Local Democracy Index as a Guide for Reforms
Democracy in Brazil is considered one of the most fragmented in the world. International news has been rife with coverage of political party chaos in the country, with two of the biggest political parties being investigated for corruption and one president already impeached. Instituto Atuação’s vision to transform the country into a full democracy has never been more timely or necessary. However, the government is practically impenetrable and highly resistant to change. How can a small organization reform an institution as big as the federal government?
The truth is that it can’t. After all, even David knew his limitations, that he was too small to fight Goliath at the latter’s own game. But David won anyway, because he realized that he didn’t have to wrestle down the giant. He could tackle the problem in a different way. Similarly, we realized that the federal government might be gigantic, but it was also made of different parts. Looking at our own home of Curitiba—which had often been lauded as a model city—we realized that the potential for change was at the local level. If democracy is about the people, then reforms to it should start at their level and with them in mind. Civil society and its engagement should be at the heart of democracy.
With a clearer path, we set out to understand the issues of Curitiba. This became our second problem, because we found that local democracy had scarcely been subject to evaluation. We decided to work with the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2015 to develop a Local Democracy Index, based on its evaluation system for countries. From expert interviews, we found that civic engagement was very low, at only 50%. In 2016, we decided to strengthen our findings by reevaluating the city: this time with a survey of 900 Curitibanos and a deeper study of the political and civic culture.
Through our survey, we learned that distrust was widespread. The government only received a 33.5% trust rating, but even more alarming, interpersonal trust was actually lower at only 30.0% which meant that a sense of security and faith in the community and the people themselves was lacking. Curitibanos also weren’t aware of what they could do to participate in government activities and decision-making, even though public consultations and municipal councils were ostensibly open to them. It seemed that the citizens weren’t cognizant of their ability to change government, that they were unsure of how they even could. When we realized that this was what was inhibiting civic engagement from flourishing, we decided to embark on a project to (re)build social ties and to help people gain confidence in their ability to change government.
We were then able to develop a cross-sector, collaborative strategy for democratic change in the city, because we learned about Curitiba’s underlying problems through the Local Democracy Index. While we started in Curitiba, we believe that the Index can help jumpstart reform programs in other cities as well. The tool provides a universal system of evaluation for cities in Brazil, but the results are unique to each, which calls for localized solutions. We see the Local Democracy Index as helping citizens, civic organizations, and local governments. It makes the people aware of what democracy should be and what needs to be improved; it helps community organizations to mobilize around core issues; and it makes governments aware of what they need to do to be better partners of the communities that they serve.
Far too often civic participation initiatives are done in isolation, as if they’re the be-all and end-all of reform movements. Without proper grounding, they can just be avenues for governments to appear open even while citizens remain on the peripheries. The Local Democracy Index can be a guide to make civic participation strategic and central to local government. It gives much-needed direction and unity to communities that are far too often divided.