QUINTON MANYE is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). His research and teaching interests focus on the design and reform of democratic political institutions, and their affect on how citizens think and act politically. Mayne recently spoke with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation about his work studying citizen satisfaction and democratic performance.
Q: You teach SUP-601: Urban Politics, Planning, and Development at the Kennedy School. What drew you to the politics of urban areas?
I work a lot on how powers are distributed across levels of government with a focus on local government. I'm really interested in understanding the difference in the powers that cities and local governments have and what the consequences of those differences are for how people think and act politically. I’m also interested in how these differences affect the types of goods and services local governments are able to produce. There's a lot of excitement right now, and energy, around cities as the site of participation and engagement and at the level where problems can get solved and challenges can be addressed. I care a lot about trying to figure out the conditions under which cities are able to realize their potential as real problem-solvers and spaces of meaningful participation.
Q: You're currently working on a book project, "The Satisfied Citizen." How is citizen satisfaction shaped in the countries that you've studied?
In the book manuscript I make the argument that the more politically empowered local governments are, the more likely citizens are to be satisfied with the functioning of democracy. In cities where local governments play a key role in shaping meaningful public policies, such as in education or social services—where governments are pretty politically empowered—we find that in those places, citizens are much less likely to be politically disaffected.
Q: What are some of the differences—that you've noted in your research—between American and European democracies regarding how citizen voices influence government?
Just focusing in on cities as spaces for voice and influence, on the surface it might seem as if cities in the United States have a lot of powers at their disposal to shape certain outcomes for citizens, but they're constrained in a number of different ways. Either by the actions of higher levels of government or by a lack of fiscal capacity. In some countries in Western Europe, cities are embedded in regional and national systems of fiscal redistribution that means that, in addition to sometimes having similar powers as those enjoyed by some cities in the U.S., cities in certain countries also have important fiscal resources at their disposal. The result is that in these contexts, cities then are able to serve as engines of human welfare in a way that isn't always the case or is especially difficult in the United States.
Q: So, it really comes down to that classic dichotomy between the American engine of urban capitalism and the European social welfare state, except boiled down to the municipal level.
In a lot of research on cities in the U.S., there's a focus on cities as growth machines and as engines of economic development. Certainly in Europe, there's an increasing emphasis on cities—and regions also—as productive spaces, spaces of employment, spaces of development; but the role of cities in some countries in designing and delivering key welfare services, rooted in a broader system of fiscal equalization, means that they are able to generate growth as well as provide goods and services that mean most and not just a minority of citizens benefit from that growth.
Q: You're currently editing a series of posts on housing affordability for the Ash Center's Democracy Program blog. Do you see the debate over affordability as one of the biggest issues in urban politics today?
Affordability has definitely increased in relevance as a political topic in recent years, especially after the Great Recession. That's true on both sides of the Atlantic. I think that the biggest issue facing American cities, and democracy more generally, is the ability and willingness of citizens to find a place at the decision-making table—both individually at the ballot box, but also collectively through social movements and organizing for and outside of elections.
In cities in the U.S. there's a long history of low levels of electoral participation. What cities in the U.S. reveal is both politics as the problem and politics as the solution. Currently, we see more of the former, where politics seems to be getting in the way of managing or solving important problems, like affordability. That's in large part related to a long history of citizens and communities not being as empowered or involved in policymaking processes at the level of the city. When you have turnout rates of between 15 and 30 percent, that doesn't signal a citizenry that is being engaged in the political process. It's not surprising, then, that the types of services and goods that city authorities decide to plan or deliver may not be meeting the needs of citizens—be it housing affordability, child care, high-quality education, or sustainable infrastructure investments. These problems won’t be fundamentally addressed by avoiding or working around politics; they will only be properly addressed through a renewed engagement with politics.