Grassroots Public Policy Development

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Michael Maranda
Association For Community Networking

Ironically, public policy development is very unpublic. It's often silent, invisible, and developed "behind the scene." This results in poor public policy that favors narrow interests and blocks progress. As power and wealth become more concentrated, wealthy people and institutions become more and more dominant in the policy arena. When that happens, local and marginalized voices are not heard; people feel disempowered and disengage further from the political process. "Ordinary" people generally stay far from the public policy arena. They feel isolated and are unaware that others are striving towards positive change. When there are public policy successes, they're not often shared with other communities and the people at the grassroots who enter the public policy arena often must needlessly reinvent the wheel.


As our lifeworld becomes more and more complex governance also grows more complicated. Meanwhile the need for sound policy becomes more essential. There are opportunities for grassroots political engagement for every policy issue that is at stake. Increasingly this will involve the intelligent use of new media and the Internet. Moreover, in this context, the development of the Internet — and policies regarding citizen use of and oversight of ICT in general — make these a critical areas in themselves for grassroots public policy development.


Public policy determines whether a new library is built — and where — and how a new clinic for homeless people is funded — or not. It even determines to a large degree who has access to communication services and who has the right to control them. Although it is often "public policy" which silently promotes or discourages certain public actions, the development, maintenance, use, and, often, the very existence of the "public policy" is about as far from "public" as can be imagined.

Policy is governance. It helps address questions like, How will we live together in a complex society? How will we deal with the problems of our time and how we collectively define what those problems are? Will governance be of the people, by the people, for the people? or will it succumb to the defects resulting from a concentration of power and wealth? This pattern is closely related to Power Research because the information uncovered is likely to be useful in determining how policy is developed and what alternative practices may be effective for developing alternative policies from the grassroots.

Public policy often has a technocratic air about it. It's often constructed by "wonks" just as computer code is produced by "geeks" and both geeks and wonks are stereotypically portrayed as social misfits who prefer complicated and artificial arcana to the "real world" (of flesh, blood, emotions, etc.). But while it's true that policy development (like computer development) does have its degree of inherent complexity (especially as it assumes a final form), an important part of its development is not "geeky" at all: it involves the crucial task of determining what one would like to see in society and how it might be encouraged to happen.

Grassroots public policy development involves local engagement that is generally contrary to top-down approaches. It occurs when the problem and the solution are defined by the active local parties rather than imposed from outside. Jason Corburn (2005) discusses why people — especially non-professionals working in the local community — are unlikely to get involved in policy work.

"Â…one difficulty that local knowledge presents is that is insights are often very contextual, while policy-making tends to make general rules. Much of the work on local knowledge is ethnographic and deeply conceptual, and few general patterns or lessons are offered. Advocates of local knowledge have been understandably hesitant to "scale up" or generalize their findings and insights — largely out of fear of inaccurate decontextualizations, oversimplifications and unjustified generalizations."

Corburn goes on to point out that it isn't just local communities who lose out when they're excluded from the process. Society at large suffers as well as, interestingly enough, the policy "wonks" whose job it is to develop these policies.

"Â…professional decision makers have not found ways to incorporate the important understandings from studies of local knowledge into the more generalized practice of policymaking. Scaling up knowledge from local settings is a necessary task in environmental health because of the extreme heterogeneity in ecosystems and human-environment linkages. But local knowledge can be used to improve environmental-health decisions while maintaining a heightened sensitivity to the contextually specific qualities of this knowledge."

The W. K. Kellogg Foundation lists four types of public policy (Kellogg Foundation, 2006): statutory (including constitution / charter or laws), fiscal (including annual budgets, acts and resolutions), regulatory (administrative rules), and institutional (such as policy manual and standards, and tenure and appointment). For each public policy type, they describe broad characteristics including scope, applicability, duration, process characteristics and primary policy makers. Note that different jurisdictions will have different public policies and each contains a variety of types. Nevertheless, the public policy landscape of any given jurisdiction can be described and understood with some variation using this framework. Using the typology described above as a way to focus one's learning in the public policy arena — especially as it pertains to one's own area of interest — is usefull for focusing public policy engagement.

Once the type of policy to be developed has been established along with at least a rough form for the policy, the plan for implementing the policy should be developed. The process must be considered, including both the formal or legal aspects of the process and the informal, tacit and behind-the-scenes aspects of the process, especially in conjunction with a consideration of the primary policy makers and how they generally operate.

The Children's Partnership offers "Six Essential Elements Derived from The Children's Partnership's Experiences" that show the basic steps in a process of moving "from an idea to a successful public policy."

1. RESEARCH BASE that is grounded in what local communities want and need.
2. POLICY PROPOSAL that responds to findings from research — one that is saleable and scaleable.
3. WAYS TO COMMUNICATE the policy idea effectively.
4. DEMONSTRATION that the policy idea can work in the real world.
5. ORGANIZING / ADVOCACY for the idea — using strategic partnerships

The inherent problem of people approaching similar problems from diverse perspectives (and, hence, using different vocabularies) will continue to crop up. People working on similar problems may not find each other or be aware of their respective efforts and intentions. Other questions also need to be addressed: who gets to do what, whose ideas are taken into account, what attitudes (respectful, paternalistic, domineering) prevail, in whose name or on what basis decisions are made, and whether they are enforced or neglected.

People often do not know how to get involved and have limited experience with being effectively involved. They therefore require contexts or channels to guide their participation and an invitation to join the effort. There are numerous sociological and psychological dimensions at play here and people will need to advance in their individual development within this social exercise.

Although face-to-face encounters remain important, tools of the Internet era can be used to facilitate new modes of organizing. For one thing, people can allow for more open spaces for dialogue and engagement. It may also be possible to coordinate with other communities who are involved in similar activities. The Internet can promote the idea of moving decision-making power towards smaller local assemblies while maintaining flexibility and freedom to connect local assemblies. In other words, new online media can allow people and communities to organize more effectively around these principles and values.

Note also that although some action, procedure or decision might be properly enshrined as part of public policy, it may have very little bearing on how things are actually done. In other words, public policy is only as valid to the degree that it is enforced and/or respected and abided by. The use of this pattern is probably only reasonable to the extent that public policy is actually respected in the setting in which it is intended to be used. For that reason, the reality of the policy's actual deployment in society, in addition to any other relevant circumstances surrounding the development and use of the policy, needs to be given special consideration.


Public policy should genuinely reflect accumulated public wisdom. The discipline required for policy work must be distributed throughout the body politic in civil discourse, research, and inclusive creative deliberation. The exercise of grassroots public policy development is the ongoing work of reconstituting the public sphere.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Policy helps address issues related to living together in a complex society. Ironically, public policy development is very unpublic. It's often silent, invisible, and developed behind the scenes. We must advance Grassroots Public Policy Development which is distributed throughout the body politic in civil discourse, research, and inclusive and creative deliberation.

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