The Biden administration has committed to organizing a “Summit for Democracy” to galvanize support for combating authoritarianism, fighting corruption so often associated with autocracy, and advancing human rights.  The global gathering is part of the president’s stated goal of placing democracy and human rights at the heart of his foreign policy.

Crafting the invite list will be one of the thorniest elements of organizing the forum.  This sensitive task will include determining which countries should have a seat at the table, particularly whether countries of strategic importance should be included even if they are emerging democracies or their leaders have taken significant – even shocking — steps backwards on civil liberties and human rights.

This debate, however crucial, obscures the summit’s intent: finding solutions to shared and pressing challenges to democratic governance and the values for which it has stood traditionally, however imperfectly.  Indeed, it is a summit “for” democracy and not “of” democracies.

With this framing in mind, who is best positioned to identify and share practices for addressing challenges to democracy?  National-level governments are necessary but not sufficient. The nature of democratic governance today — how it functions and the challenges it faces — means the summit also should include local governments. These subnational representatives include leaders of municipalities, cities, states, provinces, and regions.

Local governments — from city mayors to state governors — are the face of representative democracy to most citizens. These individuals and their institutions are responsible for understanding and addressing citizens’ needs via effective policy. Whether you are a citizen in rural South Korea or Massachusetts, chances are you are calling your local representative — not the president or your member of Parliament or Congress — to flag issues and demand action. And these local leaders are increasingly engaged internationally, whether in trade or in exchanges with counterparts across the globe, for instance.

While national governments have largely remained immobile in the face of the global crisis of representation, many subnational players have responded by attempting to reinvent what democracy looks like in the 21st century. Local authorities around the world are experimenting with different formulations of deliberative democracy to deepen democratic engagement, from adopting citizen councils to using civic lotteries in which regular people are randomly selected to deliberate on an important issue.

Perhaps the biggest democratic innovation in the last 30 years originated at the municipal level.  Participatory budgeting, a mechanism by which citizens directly allocate a portion of the budget, emerged in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989. Since then, more than 7,000 municipalities and other subnational entities globally have adopted this practice. In addition to better aligning expenditures with social priorities, increasing direct participation in the budgeting process has the potential to improve government efficiency and address some common manifestations of corruption. From India to Kenya, participatory budgeting has led to reduced clientelism and improved collective action.

Subnational representatives are also at the frontlines of detecting challenges to democracy — from corruption to pandemic response — and are developing innovative, localized solutions. Cities like Baltimore have launched extensive public COVID-19 dashboards and held meetings online to respond to constituents at a time when engaging the public is of outmost value.  

Go Local

So the case for including local government representatives in the Summit for Democracy is clear.  The Biden administration could take three steps to accomplish this to greatest effect.

First, in planning sessions to discuss and find solutions to pressing challenges and threats — authoritarianism, corruption, climate change, and inclusion of marginalized populations, among others — the White House should include a cross-section of subnational representatives. On each topic, governors, mayors, or legislators can explain how the challenge manifests locally and share practices they have used to address it.

Including representatives from subnational governments would help ensure the summit captures a complete picture of challenges and solutions applicable nationally and locally. This could also provide an avenue to include representatives from countries where democracy is backsliding at the national level who are committed to democratic governance but work at the local level. Doing so could help increase the profile and influence of subnational democratic advocates who continue to press for openness and transparency despite illiberal tendencies in the central government.

Second, the summit planning team should schedule stand-alone sessions on municipal democratic governance.  Topics could include best practices in reducing carbon emissions, reducing corruption via increased data transparency, or using digital tools to increase inclusion. City representatives could share innovative practices they have adopted and outline a path forward to ensure city innovations are responsive and inclusive of all citizens.

Finally, the Biden administration could use the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a tool to establish, track, and follow through on commitments post-summit. OGP is a global convener of reformers committed to advancing key democratic governance principles, including fiscal transparency, access to information, and citizen engagement, through the adoption of actions plans.  All told, OGP includes 78 countries and 76 local governments, representing more than 2 billion people. OGP’s relatively new subnational initiative -– OGP Local — can help ensure states and municipalities are a key component of the democracy agenda moving forward.

Looking Ahead

Cities and local governments have been stepping up to address challenges and deliver for their citizens. As city diplomacy has been gaining traction, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to recognize the role that municipal governments play in spurring democratic innovation and delivering for citizens. Doing so, and delivering on the Biden administration’s democracy agenda, starts with including them in the forthcoming summit.

IMAGE: Members of the electoral table count votes at a polling station during elections to choose mayors, councilors, and a commission to rewrite Chile’s constitution in Santiago, on May 16, 2021. Polls had closed after two days of voting for a body of 155 people that will rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era constitution that many blame for deep societal inequalities. (Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP via Getty Images)