In the late 1990’s, Los Angeles was facing a crisis as discontent neighborhoods across the city expressed their displeasure at being under-represented by city government. The most visible sign of alienation was the San Fernando Valley and Harbor areas secession movements. One alternative considered was increasing the fifteen City Council seats. There were concerns that City Council districts, at nearly a quarter-million people each, the largest in the nation, were too large to respond to many of the concerns of individual communities.

Rather than increase the existing representative democracy, the framers of the City Charter reform proposed a citywide Neighborhood Council (NC) system that they knew would be an experiment in participatory democracy. As one of the community members involved in the development of the system remembers, “It was damn exciting! We were creating an entirely new way for everyday people to be involved in city government, to change it for the better.” NCs were to be self-governing, independent advisory bodies to the City, and yet part of the City family as well. This presented not only a groundbreaking opportunity, but also an equally daunting challenge: how to cultivate grassroots democracy in one of the county’s most populous, most geographically vast and culturally diverse urban metropolitan centers, with a historically low level of civic participation.

The NCs are significant in redefining how government can effectively interact with its people to increase civic participation in a time when apathy is high. While Los Angeles saw a decrease in voter turnout the last several years, NCs are slowly pushing their numbers up with very little resources from 19,000 in 2012 to nearly 24,000 in 2014. As independent bodies, NCs can be innovative in ways to increase civic participation, such as using to increase online interactions with stakeholders, or using instant runoff voting in their elections. In 2016, they will pilot online voting citywide to increase voter turnout.

The transferability of the NC system has already been successful. The city of Nagoya, Japan, started their own neighborhood council system in 2010 based on their extensive study of Los Angeles’ system and their Mayor’s desire to increase civic participation in the community.

Read the full article about Neighborhood Councils by Grayce Liu, Kathryn Bussey, and Scott Fletcher at Participedia.