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Toward “Strong Democracy” in Global Cities? Social Capital Building, Theory-Driven Reform, and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Experience


Juliet Musso is an associate professor and Director of Graduate Programs in Public Policy and Management in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD) at University of Southern California (USC). She has expertise in federalism and urban political economy, with specific research interests in intergovernmental fiscal policy, local institutional reform, and community governance. She has published in such journals as American Review of Public Administration, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Social Forces, Urban Affairs Review, and Political Communications.

Christopher Weare is an associate research professor and Faculty Director of Online Learning in the SPPD at USC. He employs social network analysis to examine how voluntary associations join communities together and connect them to organs of governance. He also studies the development and impacts of e-government. His publications have appeared in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, American Review of Public Administration, International Journal of Public Administration, Political Communications, and Social Forces.

Thomas Bryer is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida. His teaching and research focus on public participation with government, citizen engagement, cross-sector collaboration, and ethics. His work has appeared in such journals as Public Administration Review, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Administrative Theory & Praxis, Journal of Public Administration Education, American Review of Public Administration, and International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior. He also has published chapters in peer-reviewed books and award-winning teaching simulations.

Terry L. Cooper is the Maria B. Crutcher Professor in Citizenship and Democratic Values at the SPPD at USC, where he researches citizen participation and ethics. He is coeditor of Exemplary Public Administrators: Character and Leadership in Government (Jossey-Bass, 1992) and editor of Handbook of Administrative Ethics (2nd ed., Marcel Dekker, 2001). His articles have appeared in Public Administration Review, Administration & Society, International Review of Administrative Sciences, International Journal of Public Administration, Administrative Theory & Praxis, and International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior. Professor Cooper serves on the editorial board of The American Review of Public Administration and is the editor of the Exemplars Profiles series in the journal Public Integrity. He is a member of the National Academy of Public Administration.


With faith in government waning, cultural diversity spiraling, and fiscal stress straining the ability of policy makers to address the policy challenges accompanying these developments, the salience of (re)connecting citizens with government takes on renewed urgency today. Nowhere is this more the case than in urban America, where so-called global cities teeming with ethnic diversity and controlling a disproportionate amount of global business in the world economy confront profound citizen participation challenges, choices, and opportunities. In this installment of Theory to Practice, the authors cull lessons from their 10-year action theory–based assessment and participation in the city of Los Angeles’ neighborhood council experience. Comparing and contrasting their findings in this global city with those from related studies on participatory mechanisms and deliberative processes more generally, they offer six lessons for those seeking to build stronger democracy in urban areas, argue that further advances require a greater research focus on the longitudinal implementation of these efforts rather than just on their design, and contend that university researchers have a role to play in these efforts as long as they appreciate the paradoxical nature of their participation.

Expert e-commentary by Brian Cook of Virginia Tech, Tina Nabatchi of Syracuse University, and John Thomas of Georgia State University on the perspectives and arguments culled from Los Angeles’ theory-based participatory efforts can be found on the PAR website (go to, click on the link to PAR, and then on the Theory to Practice link). These e-commentaries are accompanied by the authors’ response and instructions on how PAR readers can join the exchange.