Many of you reading this were part of the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, a five-day long summer gathering in San Francisco, that looked at the state of direct democracy in California, the U.S., and the world.

These every other year gatherings have continued, under the leadership and management of friends in Europe. The next such gathering is at the University of Carthage in Tunis, Tunisia, May 14-17. (Details are here). It’s a free, public gathering, with speeches, workshops, even a debate between Tunisian political parties. Why would Californians think of traveling all the way to Tunisia?

In short, to think about our own state and local governments.

Tunisia confronts a fascinating challenge. It was where the Arab Spring began more than 4 years ago, and Tunisia, unlike other countries, has maintained its democratic momentum. The country has established a Parliament, elected leaders, and – eat your hearts out California – established a new constitution.

But the country doesn’t have a real system of regional, state or local government. So it must establish one – in the next year.

Everything is up for grabs, from the geographical boundaries of jurisdictions to the competencies of the different levels of government. Intriguingly, the constitution requires that the new levels of government must incorporate participatory and direct democracy. And this process of decentralization requires citizens’ participation directly, making it all the more worth watching.

What will Tunisians do with this blank slate? And what would California do? California lives with a broken state and local system – a big centralized, distant state government, and too many thousands of overlapping local jurisdictions. And our regions overlap county boundaries, which were established in the 19th century.

Maybe if Tunisia comes up with some smart answers, Californians can learn some lessons – and redesign state and local governance so that we stay up to date with North Africa in the 21st century.