Symposium | First Principles: Reclaiming Citizenship

The Networks of Self-Governance

By Carmen Sirianni

Tagged CivicsGovernance

At the heart of the problem of renewing a self-governing democracy in twenty-first century America are two questions. First, can we enrich the roles of citizens as problem-solving agents? Second, can the agencies of the administrative state at all levels of the federal system enable such productive engagement, and thereby take a rightful, even noble, place in a democratic theory and practice of self-governance? In short, can we find the sweet spots where productive civic agents and effective public agencies meet and produce public goods that are recognized as valuable by a democratic citizenry, in its various other roles as informed voters, righteous protesters, and cost-conscious taxpayers?

To be sure, these are not the only core questions of a public philosophy of self-governance. A social democratic welfare state requires that we design social and distributive policies in a way that enables citizens to better understand benefits as public goods; that allows us to protect, reform, and finance systems as needed; and that prevents people from becoming dependent clients of professionalized bureaucracies or self-interested claimants at the public trough.

The Founders invoked the ideal of republican self-government, though they never completely agreed upon what they meant by this. The rich and varied theoretical traditions upon which they drew—liberal, civic republican, Puritan commonwealth, and Scottish moral sense traditions, among others—had different emphases, though there were clear overlaps and fertile combinations. As various forms of civic associations, social movements, public lobbies, stakeholder groups, and deliberative forums have been layered into our democratic system over time, we need to think more broadly in terms of self-governance as a further distributed and networked form of democracy, rather than just self-government, in the sense of formal state institutions. In the twenty-first century, formal government institutions, no matter how well run, cannot perform essential tasks without enlisting civic associations, nonprofit organizations, and stakeholder networks to help solve complex public problems. This historical and institutional layering of democratic forms is the terrain upon which we continually reconstruct our self-governing democracy. Today, such reconstruction requires that we think more deeply about civic agents and public agencies.

Civic Agents

The first thing we need to do is reimagine citizens as problem-solving civic agents who can produce public value. Pragmatic and skilled civic agents are especially required as public problems become increasingly complex, as the public itself becomes increasingly diverse in terms of identity and interest, and as knowledge becomes distributed beyond the professionals and public managers we delegate to solve problems. The citizen as pragmatic problem-solver needs to assume a central place, collaborating with other citizens and with diverse groups of stakeholders and sometime-adversaries, in effect coproducing public goods.

Such a conception for the citizen has always been part of American tradition, though it has tended over time to be squeezed aside by narrower conceptions—of the citizen as mere voter or taxpayer, as righteous protester or rights-based beneficiary. In the early commonwealth tradition of Massachusetts, the town meeting was not just for speeches, but also for distributing the numerous minor offices that made for self-governing communities. As many as three quarters of the adult-male population served in these at one point or another in their lives. The provincial government (later the Commonwealth) helped to catalyze productive efforts by building bridges, ironworks, schools, and even a college called Harvard, ensuring what one historian has characterized as “synergistic multiplier effects” across a rich civic ecology. Jefferson’s later ideal of “making every citizen an acting member of the government and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him,” and reserving for him “the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent,” drew upon these same traditions.

They extended later to territorial Kansas, where the New England Emigrant Aid Company (NEEAC) raised money from wealthy business donors as well as ordinary congregants and clergy, and enabled migrants to settle a free state. NEEAC agents—the community organizers of Kansas—helped the emigrants build schools and libraries, sawmills and gristmills, churches and newspapers, and what is today the University of Kansas. They attracted more free-state settlers from across the Midwest and outvoted those in favor of slavery in the emerging state.

A few contemporary examples help clarify what pragmatic civic action means today. Two decades ago, the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, a citywide advocacy group, demanded that citizens themselves play an active and ongoing role in the new community-policing program. Local residents would meet with police officers at monthly beat meetings to analyze public-safety problems, using not only the latest expert data systems, but also their own knowledge of places, people, and patterns of activity in their communities. They would also deliberate about community priorities and effective strategies, and then distribute further roles that they could play in tackling problems, including mapping street lighting, tree cover, and bus routes; holding prayer vigils and barbecue “smoke outs” in the midst of street drug markets; picketing the homes of landlords whose neglected buildings bred criminal activity; and conducting “clean and green” efforts to bolster community pride. Such strategies entailed the collaboration of other city departments, not as separate bureaucracies, but as partners in what citizens helped to design and implement as integrative solutions. Other civic groups, such as churches, community development corporations, and neighborhood business associations, contributed to the problem-solving strategies and became co-producers of the public good we call “public safety.” The motto of the program, pervasive in public outreach campaigns, captured this well: “Safe Neighborhoods Are Everybody’s Business”—the work of every citizen, not just the professionals with badges.

We see the emergence of citizens as collaborative problem-solvers and coproducers of public goods in many other areas: public health, environmental justice, sustainable cities, school reform, urban agriculture, city and regional planning, and disability services, to name a few. The most effective community-organizing models have trained tens of thousands of citizens from all walks of life to be effective civic agents. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by the famously contentious Saul Alinsky, shifted gears in the 1970s to stress “relational power”—that is, expanding the public power of community actors and networks of congregations by building relationships. This means developing social capital, perhaps lying dormant, by systematic campaigns of one-on-ones and house meetings, in which ordinary people share their public narratives, pool their local knowledge, and build their leadership skills. When they use this power to challenge elected officials, business leaders, school administrators, and others, they cultivate civic leadership as a craft that can enable them to turn adversaries into partners capable of making practical improvements. The IAF is but one of several national networks for community organizing that employ such methods of active civic engagement. Such civic enterprises—in addition to IAF, there are PICO and the Gamaliel Foundation, among others—now include some 200 or so metropolitan coalitions with dozens and in some cases even hundreds of member organizations.

Public Agencies

Public agencies—which is to say, the government—can enable, support, and catalyze civic agents. They do not simply have to be unilateral actors. They can fund civic capacity building, design policies for partnership, and support civic networks capable of sharing best practices and providing training for complex problem solving on a broad scale.
A local example and a federal one give a sense of how this can happen. Beginning in the late 1980s, the city of Seattle, in response to citizen protest through their independent community councils, created a Neighborhood Matching Fund that enabled residents in all neighborhoods to apply for competitive grants for a broad range of physical, cultural, aesthetic, ecological, and other improvements, on condition that they match the dollar value of the grant with their own labor and expertise, in-kind contributions, or cash raised locally or from foundations. The first director of the Department of Neighborhoods had himself been trained as a community organizer by the Gamaliel network. Citizens, in partnership with city staff, are responsible for design and implementation. As of 2011, they have completed more than 3,800 projects—parks, playgrounds, community gardens, public art and sculpture, ecosystem restoration and education—through more than half a million hours of public work by ordinary people, ranging from unemployed minority youth to high-tech professionals, and from every ethnic, minority, immigrant, and refugee community in the city.

Seattle’s matching fund has also served as a template for more systematic neighborhood planning, mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act of 1990. First implemented under Mayor Norm Rice in the 1990s, neighborhood planning is now part of the comprehensive planning process for a sustainable Seattle. It has been conducted through deliberative public forums to generate broad legitimacy and through one-on-ones with all sorts of stakeholders to create trust. The city council holds all neighborhood-planning groups accountable for demonstrating adequate stakeholder inclusion (with clear norms of diversity and social justice), as well as for feasible and cost-effective proposals. City staff in a dozen agencies, from planning and transportation to parks and public utilities, have learned how to collaborate with empowered citizen groups. Rice, though a skeptic at first, convened his cabinet in a special retreat to make sure they understood the public philosophy behind the new approach. Voters later approved hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds and levies to fund proposals for new and renovated libraries, community centers, parks and open space, and low-income housing. Investing in everyday civic agents, and in the complementary skills and culture change of “civic professionals” in public agencies, helped produce still further democratic investments in public goods. For instance, the technology matching fund in the Department of Information Technology is now helping to catalyze what is arguably the most robust civic communications networks of any city in the United States, adding further to capacities for problem solving.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides a good example of how a federal agency can enable the productive work of citizens. Take the area of watersheds, for instance—hydrologically defined drainage basins that feed particular water bodies, where issues of water quality, supply, fisheries, habitat preservation, biodiversity, flood control, and more arise. If you fish for a living or for enjoyment off the Maryland coast you may find that fertilizers used by Pennsylvania farmers 100 miles inland are slowly ruining your livelihood or your family weekends. Without an understanding of the Chesapeake Bay as an integrated set of smaller watersheds covering 64,000 square miles and innumerable jurisdictional boundaries across six states and the District of Columbia, farmers may have no understanding of this public problem and little reason to care. Agency staff thus began to work with the emerging watershed movement to first reframe the problem: Most if not all the key problems pertaining to water need to be understood and dealt with at the level of watersheds, rather than just as separate water bodies regulated pollutant-by-pollutant. With this reframing that highlighted the interactive complexity of problems and the limits of command and control, EPA came to recognize the many sources of citizen knowledge and civic action that would be needed to protect and restore watersheds over the long run. Maryland oystermen met with Pennsylvania farmers, and the farmers brought their peers to meetings to share best practices on pollution prevention and sustainable agriculture. More than 600 watershed associations across the Chesapeake Bay now help catalyze this work.

EPA’s emergent strategy, beginning in the 1980s, has had several components. One has been to develop a broad suite of tools that citizens can use to do their work, in effect, as a craft: developing watershed plans in open civic forums, organizing watershed associations and alliances, estimating the economic value of watershed functions, financing restoration projects, and convening multi-stakeholder partnerships. One tool enables civic activists to present data and strategies to the broader public, including the fragmented residents of various towns, cities, and counties that might fall within a specific watershed, so that they can develop the public will necessary not just for civic work, but also for needed investments in public infrastructure and changes in local land-use policies and building practices.

Most typically, the EPA coproduces these tools with civic associations and in response to feedback from locals—indeed, in much the same way that NEEAC in Boston worked with local citizens and field agents in Kansas in publishing guides for settlers. The second edition of Volunteer Estuary Monitoring provides a good sense of the combination of technical knowledge and civic practice represented by EPA’s collaborative work. Developed in partnership with the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy group, Volunteer Estuary Monitoring is a 396-page methods manual that covers all manner of project planning, from raising money and enlisting volunteers to measuring pollutants and nutrients. The process for developing the tool, however, is as significant as the product. With EPA funding, the Ocean Conservancy had been conducting regular training for local networks of volunteer groups since 1998 in all 28 designated national estuaries—some 600 groups in all as of 2005. During development of the manual’s second edition, the Ocean Conservancy worked with experts in each technical area of monitoring and shared the draft with all its local group trainees to see if it met their own standards of knowledge and usability. The final draft was reviewed by a broad array of leading practitioners from these groups, as well as from state university extension services, local and state agencies, EPA regional and headquarters offices, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. From local knowledge and organizing methods on one end to laboratory science and rigorous quality assurance techniques on the other, this network has produced and refined a form of democratic knowledge indispensable to the stewardship of estuaries throughout the country.

Several other components of the EPA’s watershed strategies complement its coproduction of citizen tools. One is competitive EPA funding to help build the organizational capacity of local groups, as well as of national movement intermediaries, such as the River Network, which provide training for effective use of the tools. Another is co-sponsoring large conferences that bring together leaders from many parts of the watershed movement, as well as other stakeholders from local and state agencies, and professional and trade associations. And still another is to provide guidance and incentives to states to adopt watershed strategies, which in turn has led to the growth of statewide watershed assemblies and councils, as well as further growth of local groups. This puts further civic flesh on the bones of federalism.

Looking Forward

On President Obama’s first full day in office, he issued a memorandum titled “Transparency and Open Government.” The three principles of this memorandum went beyond simply making government transparent by opening it up further to the sunshine of public scrutiny. It also sought to make government participatory and collaborative, in the sense of engaging the “collective expertise” that is broadly distributed among citizens, within communities of all sorts, and across a broad range of civic networks, as well as among the experts inside and outside of government who might contribute to collaborative problem solving.

Unfortunately, early evaluations have shown that the open government initiative has been so weighted toward transparency and developing new online platforms for public feedback that it has missed much of the substance of the work of ordinary civic agents, as well as some of the best programmatic work by agency staff who have helped to catalyze civic action for several decades. In addition, various agency cutbacks have often eroded the capacity of movement networks, like the River Network, to leverage training on an appropriate scale (though some areas have seen budget increases). The interagency National Action Plan on managing freshwater resources in a changing climate, released in June 2011, provides much-needed strategic guidance under the following rubric: “Government agencies and citizens collaboratively manage freshwater resources in response to a changing climate in order to ensure adequate water supplies, to protect human life, health and property, and to protect water quality and aquatic ecosystems.” However, except for a single sentence on the youth outreach programs of 4-H and Project WET (a nonprofit water education program), the plan has virtually no civic substance at all, even though there is perhaps no long-term challenge that will tax our capacities as democratic problem-solvers more than adapting to climate change.

How do we move forward in the coming years? First, progressives should recognize that nonpartisan and collaborative forms of civic action have significant popular appeal, even in the highly partisan period in which we live, and even as we must undoubtedly wage some very partisan battles. Many everyday conservatives, as well as some notable conservative innovators within public agencies, have contributed significantly to civic innovation, sometimes alongside or even in direct partnership with strong progressives. Americans crave arenas of public action that cut across political divisions and solve real problems—pragmatically, relationally, and with reciprocal accountability from all actors, angry and righteous citizens included. But we should not be fooled by cheap and superficial talk from the right that dismantling Washington can be done in the name of local civic democracy. Those on the right who sound the loudest bell of this sort typically produce the most hollow of sounds, usually of the idealized myth of the free market clanking, perhaps modulated by choral notes of well-meaning but minimalist compassion and charity. They substitute faux populism for sustained civic action to solve problems, and fantasize that the untrammeled market will solve most of them, in any case. The more complex our problems, the more we need institutions of the administrative state, but ones that can learn how to align smart regulatory authority with robust civic action.

Second, as useful as the “99 percent vs. 1 percent” metaphor has been in highlighting some important aspects of inequality, progressives should not delude themselves into thinking that this provides the key to solving most public problems or to motivating a citizenry with the skills and capacities to help solve them. Most complex public problems have multiple sources of interest and conflict, diverse sets of legitimate stakeholders and publics, and uncertain solutions. Most cannot be solved by the imagined solidarity of the 99 percent versus the power and resources of the 1 percent. Temporarily useful metaphors to focus righteous anger cannot provide robust frames for the kind of sustained work required to transform conflict, not just feed it. If the biographical trajectories of participatory democrats of the 1960s provide any indication, those many young Occupiers who have found face-to-face democracy inspiring and transformative can discover many existing venues for creative engagement that will inspire them to take their leadership skills to new levels. And no doubt they will invent still other forms needed by a civic democracy appropriate for the twenty-first century.

Finally, while progressives are quite facile in proposing figures in the billions and hundreds of billions for large infrastructure projects and other high-ticket items, they need to see that we also must invest in the infrastructure of a collaborative and self-governing democracy. A small fraction of these dollar amounts would set us on a sustainable trajectory that could help insure that this wave of progressivism is far more democratic, and far less technocratic, than the Progressive Era of a century ago. Investing in democracy as civic capacity building should be, at minimum, a central concern of the Office of Management and Budget, an idea that has been raised recently. But we need many more approaches, including ones that take open-government initiatives to new levels of substance. We need our core administrative and social welfare agencies at all levels of the federal system, but with a special dynamism from Washington, to ensure that we nurture the Big Citizenship required for Big Problems.

The less we strategically invest in collaborative governance, the more vulnerable will our democracy remain to faux populisms of various sorts and the less legitimate will the role of government seem in producing public goods. Indeed, it is very doubtful that a technocratic progressivism, even when dressed up with new technology platforms, can succeed this time around.

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Carmen Sirianni holds the Morris Hillquit Chair in Labor and Social Thought and is professor of sociology and public policy at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance.

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