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Seeking Nominations: The 2016 Laurence and Lynne Brown Democracy Medal

When Nov 20, 2015 08:00 AM to
Feb 01, 2016 11:55 PM
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The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University is accepting nominations for the 2016 Brown Democracy Medal. The medal and $5,000 are awarded annually to bring attention to the best new work being done by individuals or organizations to advance democracy in the United States and around the globe. The Brown Medal recognizes a person or organization whose most recent work is tremendously important but under-appreciated. The medal brings new ideas and innovations the public recognition they deserve and advances their positive impact on democracy.

Award Review Process for Innovations in Democratic Practice

The Institute gives medals in even-numbered years to what it judges the best innovation in the practice of democracy. We are looking a new institution, law, technology, or movement that advances democracy.  As an illustration, the inaugural medal was given in 2014 to the Participatory Budgeting Project, which brings communities together to make informed decisions about public spending. Other promising nomination received that year included new institutions, laws, technologies, and political movements, each of which improved democracy in different ways—from strengthening the public’s control of the agenda to diversifying the electorate or improving public engagement and deliberation. (In odd-numbered years, the medal goes to those who offer a richer philosophical or empirical conception of democracy. The 2015 winner was Joan Tronto of the University of Minnesota, for her work on care in democratic politics.)

Nominations for the 2016 medal will be accepted through February 1, 2016, and the awardee will be announced in the spring. The winning individual (or representative of a winning organization) will give a talk at Penn State in October 2016, when they will receive their medal and award. Between the spring announcement of the winner and the on-campus event in the fall, the Institute will provide the recipient with professional editorial assistance toward completing a short (20-25 page) essay describing the innovation for a general audience. In the fall, Cornell University Press will publish the essay, which will be available to the general public at a very low price in electronic and print formats to aid the diffusion of the winning innovation. Essays from the two previous winners are available through Cornell University Press and other online outlets. Audio versions of the first two winning essays are also available at

To assure full consideration, please send all nomination letters before February 1 to Initial nomination letters are simply that, a one-to-two page letter that describes how the nominee’s work meets the criteria for this award and what distinguishes it from other work on democracy. Both self-nominations and nominations of others are welcomed. In either case, email, phone, and postal contact information for the nominee must be included.

A distinguished review panel composed of Penn State faculty, doctoral students, and independent reviewers will screen those initial nominations and select a subset of nominees who will be notified that they have advanced to a second round. Those in the second round will be required to provide further documentation, which includes the following: biographical sketch of the individual or organization nominated (max. two pages); two letters of support from persons familiar with their work, particularly those who work independently from the nominee; a basic description of the innovation and its efficacy, with a maximum length of thirty pages of printed materials and/or thirty minutes of audio/video materials; and a one-page description of who would come to Penn State to receive award and who would draft the essay describing the innovation. The review panel will then scrutinize the more detailed applications and select an awardee by the end of April.

Review Criteria

The democratic innovation selected will score highest on these features:

  1. Novelty. The innovation is precisely that—a genuinely new way of thinking about democracy or practicing it. The award is thus intended to recognize recent accomplishments, which have occurred during the previous five years. The innovation will likely build on or draw on past ideas and practices, but its novelty must be obvious.
  2. Systemic change. The idea, theory, or practical reform should represent significant change in how we think about and practice democracy. Ideas should be of the highest clarity and quality, empirical studies should be rigorous and grounded in evidence, and practical reforms must have proof of their effectiveness. The change the innovation brings about should be able to alter the larger functioning of a democratic system over a long time frame.
  3. Potential for Diffusion. The idea or reform should have general applicability across many different scales and cultural contexts. In other words, it should be relevant to people who aspire to democracy in many parts of the world and/or in many different social or political settings.
  4. Democratic Quality. In practical terms, while the nominees themselves may well be partisan, the spirit of this innovation must be nonpartisan and advance the most essential qualities of democracy, such as broad social inclusion, deliberativeness, political equality, and effective self-governance.

When choosing among otherwise equally qualified submissions, the review panel will also consider two practical questions. Who would give the lecture on campus and meet with the PSU community? Who would write the essay about the innovation? Neither needs to be the nominee, nor the nominator.

Individuals or organizations who have worked closely with Institute or Center directors are not eligible. Until 2019, Penn State alums or employees are also ineligible.

Questions and Further Information

Any questions or requests for more information should be sent to

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State ( promotes rigorous scholarship and practical innovations to advance the democratic process in the United States and abroad. The Institute’s work is supported by the work of two University “Centers of Excellence:” the Center for Democratic Deliberation (CDD) and the Center for American Political Responsiveness (CAPR). The CDD works to improve public deliberation, recognizing that effective deliberation among citizens has the potential to reshape the quality of public opinion. CAPR attends to the actions of elected bodies and the dynamics of electoral politics. Its mission is to assess the responsiveness and effectiveness of these institutions. The Institute tends to the space between those questions. More broadly, it uses its resources to promote a civil, constructive, and genuinely public conversation about the overall health of American democracy.