Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Bubble-up democracy: a proposal for a third branch of government

on 1998 June 14

The proposal is to set up a metro area-wide bubble-up public leadership process using existing social structures such as neighborhood associations, with the eventual goal that the process is handed over to government, and that the planning documents written by the public through the process get legal status as official ruling documents. Please refer to the article “Good Government” for the theoretical vision towards which this proposal aims.

Background: The United States government and its constituent governments were founded on the faith in the ability of the people to lead. The function of local planning and visioning was originally unified with the elected leadership of the local government. It was once true that elected leaders could understand the workings of the city, understand the problems, know their constituency personally, and propose sensible actions. The principle of representative democracy – that the citizens are relived from the responsibilities of day-to-day leadership by electing representatives – was applicable at that time because it was possible for leaders to express public visions, plan, and execute services; or simply put: it was possible for leaders to lead.

But today with the increased size, complexity, and scope of government, it is beyond the abilities of human beings to control the large “machine” we have created. For a number of reasons, elected leaders (no matter who they are) can no longer be relied upon for leadership that actually reflects the public will. These reasons include:

  • More groups – minorities, women, and non-land-owners – are now part of the democracy. Since citizens are no longer a small homogeneous group, there is no longer a “generally accepted” solution to problems. This also makes constituencies larger.
  • The basic structure of society – families and neighborhoods – has decayed, and in some places fallen apart with the incidence of poverty, drugs, crime, and high mobility; therefore government is being relied on for a huge variety of services, government structure has gotten much more complex, and the task of operating the government has become too complex for average people to understand.
  • Corporations larger than governments exist today, and large corporations are exerting large influences on government. Under early state laws, corporations were permitted only after careful scrutiny and only when they served the public interest. Today corporations are organized to serve investor interests exclusively and use whatever influence they can get over the government to that end. To be elected, more funding is needed than ever, and support of corporations may help someone be elected. Therefore the people on the ballot are not necessarily those who are committed to the public will over corporate and special interests.

Process: This project will set in place a leadership structure which is a third alternative to two extremes of direct and representative democracy. On the one extreme, direct democracy is rarely used because it is unrealistic for all citizens to be informed about many issues and want to commit the time to vote frequently. On the other extreme, representative democracy as we practice it is highly un-involved: a vast majority of people only vote occasionally and do nothing else. The bubble-up leadership method is a middle way that gives a great deal of control back to the public but only requires a monthly time commitment and does not require specialized technical knowledge. In this project, however, the results of the bubble-up method will only be recommendations. If the structure proves to be successful at involving the public and producing good recommendations, the next step would be to adopt a structure of government that includes the bubble-up process as a legally binding one.

Here’s an example of how it could work: The Albuquerque area would have three levels of leadership: block, neighborhood, and metro area. The lowest level would comprise about 100 adults; and each higher level would comprise about 100 of the smaller districts. Therefore the second level would represent roughly 10,000 people and the third level, about a million people.

At each level the constituents hold monthly meetings. The constituency of the block level is all adults living in the block. (There is a parallel youth constituency described below.) The block holds meetings each fourth Monday evening in the month. Each block elects one representative who also attends the neighborhood meeting, held on third Monday evenings; and each neighborhood likewise elects one representative who also attends the metro area meeting held on second Monday evenings. This structure provides three (or four) weeks to prepare the results of a meeting to take to its parent meeting.

Meetings at all levels follow a prescribed parliamentary procedure (to be developed). The members elect a chair, recorder, and representative. They may change these assignments at any time through a standard procedure.

Block meeting: All new ideas must originate in the block meeting. The task at each meeting is (1) to work out immediate problems at the block level – those that don’t require wider attention; (2) approve, amend, or reject reports from the neighborhood meeting; and (3) submit new reports containing ideas, problems, priorities, etc. to the neighborhood meeting. To submit any report, or take any action on a neighborhood report, two-thirds majority support of those present is needed. Two months of non-action on a neighborhood report is equal to an approval.

Neighborhood meeting: The task of neighborhood meetings is (1) to work out immediate problems at the neighborhood level – those that don’t require wider attention; (2) approve, amend, or reject reports from the metro meeting; (3) combine block reports into a neighborhood report to submit back to blocks for approval; and (4) to submit block-approved neighborhood reports to the metro meeting. Metro reports do not need block-level approval; each report only goes down one level for approval. To take any action on a metro report, two-thirds majority support of those present is needed. To submit a report to the metro meeting, two-thirds of the block meetings must have approved it exactly as written. Four months of non-action on a metro report is equal to an approval.

Metro meeting: The task of metro meetings is (1) combine neighborhood reports into a metro report to submit back to neighborhoods for approval; and (2) to submit neighborhood-approved metro reports to legislative bodies. To submit a report, two-thirds of the neighborhood meetings must have approved it exactly as written.

Legislative bodies: The additional task of legislative bodies is to respond to metro reports in cases where the recommendations are not possible to implement. This is likely to occur because (1) the metro leadership membership will not necessarily have technical knowledge of the areas about which they are submitting recommendations, and (2) they may submit recommendations, that, if followed, would be in conflict with a higher law that the legislative body has no jurisdiction over.

Youth meetings: There will be a parallel structure for youth ages 13-17 at all three levels, whose meeting dates and locations are the same as the adult process. The youth meetings will start a half-hour prior to the adult meetings, so that adults who may be needed to help the youth process can also participate in the adult meetings. Adults may not vote in youth meetings, and may not hold chair, recorder, or representative positions. The youth metro report will also be submitted to legislative bodies and will have advisory status only (even if and when the adult report becomes binding).


  • Because some elected leaders are finding their jobs difficult and are currently asking for more direction, they will be happy to finally have something to go by, a “job description” to make their work more defined. It will help them know what a large majority of their constituency wants. Some of the public consensus items would be followed by legislators, even without making the metro report binding on legislation.
  • While the structure will start out with advisory status, if successful, the legal status could eventually change to be binding – so that the city council is required to implement the policies listed in the metro report. This would “complete the loop” in the democracy and put the faith back in the ability of the people to lead. (Of course, the details of what to do when legislators don’t follow the plans has to be worked out. For example, the courts could be used to allow the metro leadership members to impeach legislators/councilors for failing to follow their plans.)
  • The monthly meeting will provide a place to learn about government, priorities and limitations of public services, and so forth. The public today may not be sufficiently educated to be able to take meaningful responsibility in government. For example, many people complain at the same time of high taxes and insufficient services, and may not realize the connections. Citizens have not traditionally needed to understand these kinds of connections, but through this process, will learn how to take control of their communities, what has worked, what is possible, etc.
  • Because “regular” people whose job is not at stake, and who may have no background in government, will now be involved in government, they will find ways to simplify government and limit the proliferation and overlap of programs, saving a lot of taxes. (The possibility of government shrinking or simplifying from within is remote, since there the built-in incentive for government employees is to make things complicated so their jobs remain necessary.)
  • Since people are all different, building local decision-making power will lead to a variety of neighborhoods and ways of life, and may re-build local customs and help re-build the some of the lost social fabric of families and communities, counteracting the current trend of making every town and city across America into a replica of the next town.
  • People-driven leadership will give lawmakers the people perspective, where currently the dominant lobbying effort in many cases is business interests. Legislators who are not informed on a specific industry may favor legislation introduced by that industry group simply because people outside the industry have not had a chance to understand the proposal and formulate a response, and so the legislator may only hear one side of the story.

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