Archives for the month of: December, 2008

Yesterday I wrote about misgivings I have in connecting civic engagement too closely with the formal workings of government.

My main concern is that citizen-generated activity could tend to be stifled and bureaucratized by creating some kind of “office of civic engagement” or an “engagement czar” (this is akin to President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives). However, with the right kind of leadership, and support at the highest levels, such an office could have a hugely beneficial effect on the quality of our public life. In the end, I support such a move.

But there are other dangers, too. These have to do with politics (as opposed to government). The main problem here is that politics doesn’t know what to make of civic engagement.

This is a big problem for those of us who labor in this field — how do we let elected officials and other policy makers know about the results of public dialogue? How can we suggest it best be integrated into governance? No one has yet answered this question, from my observations.

(I wrote a report for the National Issues Forums Institute describing the efforts of one member of Congress to use citizen engagement as a way of gaining community knowledge.)

The Obama-Biden transition office is in the midst of a series of “community meetings” on health care reform. Seeing how these play out and how they are reported on is illuminating.

News coverage has chiefly used two frames. One frame is the “listening session” frame, in which the meetings are portrayed as an informal chance for HHS Secretary-designate Tom Daschle to gain first-hand knowledge of people’s concerns with health care. The other frame is the “political ammunition” frame, in which this effort represents the opening moves in an effort to build a grassroots, mobilizeable base on which to rely when the health care reform fight begins to get ugly. Politico’s coverage today is a good example.

Each of these frames is patently politics-as-usual: Citizens are either being asked to give testimony in a hearing, or they are being whipped into a frenzy so they can be mobilized.

Certainly, the former perception is preferable to the latter. But the default position for political journalists is skepticism — it’s easy for this effort to come off as just a campaign salvo.

Even so, there’s another area where the effort can fall short, and that’s in the organizing. It is, after all, a political office that is responisble for planning and administering these community meetings. Politics is fast-moving and in its day-to-day workings it relies heavily on doing what’s beeen shown to work in the past. And so, for all its talk of being a “different” way to engage citizens on the health care debate, when you look at the community meeting discussion guide, it looks very much like a meeting designed to elicit sound bites and quotes. (To be fair, this is the participant guide; I have not been able to find a way to access the moedrator’s guide. If someone has a copy, please let me know.)

One of the great strengths of community dialogues when it comes to policy-making is that they provide a forum in which citizens can wrestle with the trade offs and downsides of various plans and approaches. But people typically need to be pushed to have such conversations. This is only natural — but when the reluctance is overcome, dramatic new insights can arise.

For civic engagement to be “used” most effectively, it needs to be organized in a way that recognizes its value. In order for that to happen, existing mindsets — those of journalists and those of political staffers — will need to be overcome. This is a tall order, but it is doable.

One way to help is for the “civic participation” community to continue to be as involved and engaged with the Obama-Biden transition office as it has been.

In that respect, the Agenda for Strengtheining America’s Democracy is a great step.

Many friends and colleagues have worked hard on something called the Agenda For Strengthening America’s Democracy. Put simply, this is an effort by an broad array of people in the “civic participation” field to lay out a set of principles that could guide the Obama administration moving forward. They see this as a reasonable thing to do because President-Elect Obama has been a proponent of civic engagement. Indeed, his transition office is already implementing plans for large-scale dialogue about health care reform.

A network of people who are a part of the civic participation field has developed a set of talking points about this, which reads in part:

“Public engagement” or “citizen engagement” is more than just getting people to vote and to volunteer in their communities. Government must also engage citizens in the policy decisions that affect their lives.

Our nation is at a unique point in its history. We face great, unprecedented challenges, but we also have remarkable opportunities for change. Now is the time to come together to advance the ideals that we all share.

There are many meaningful and exciting ways the new administration can build on the citizen engagement it began in the election campaign and carry it into governance.

A new civic engagement agenda signals a new way of governing.

I agree completely — yet I am torn. On the one hand, I am a strong believer in the wisdom of citizens when it comes to difficult policy issues, and I equally strongly believe that political leaders ought to develop mechanisms for listening to this wisdom.

However, I have equally strong misgivings about the formalization of “civic engagement” mechanisms within government. To the extent that civic engagement efforts are mandated and (worse) bureaucratized — I worry that they work against the very spirit of citizen participation.

The Agenda has three main thrusts. It calls for the creation of a White House-level “Office of Civic Engagement,” for the government to institute “large scale dialogue” efforts, and for legislative changes to make voting easier and implement a grab-bag of electoral reforms that have been kicking around for some time (instant runoff voting, proportional representation, etc.).

But, to my mind, civic participation’s power lies in its extra-governmental (and even extra-institutional) status. Small groups of citizens working together to solve problems is far different from organized “discussion groups” whose objective is to generate “input” for “policy makers.”

Still, according to the talking points:

A healthy democracy needs the capacity to involve its citizens in key decisions. Government cannot be left to leaders, experts, and pundits with the public only weighing in on election day. People from all walks of life should be encouraged to wrestle with tough questions, seek common ground, and develop and articulate their views. Policymakers should see themselves as part of this larger process, not as a world unto themselves.

I agree with that, too.

And so I am left wondering what to do. I support my friends on the broad aims, but I differ on some of the key strategies.

One friend whom I wrote asking how he might respond to this struggle said he shared my misgivings about turning participation into an institution, yet says that, “At the same time, I think we have to try. We face too many monumental challenges to not try everything we can to engage as many people as possible in the hard work we face.”

My friend makes a very good point. What will engage the greatest number of people, in substantive ways, without ultimately driving them away? That’s the question I am wrestling with.

I laughed out loud when I read that, last Monday, The New York Times (which may be the most overvalued brand out there in news — but that’s another post) had egg on its face when it admitted that it had published a fake letter to the editor.

A big boo-boo in the newspaper world, but it gets worse: the letter purported to be from the mayor of Paris and it criticized the Empire State’s possible next Senator, Caroline Kennedy. AP reports:

“What title has Ms. Kennedy to pretend to Hillary Clinton’s seat?” the letter in Monday’s editions said. “We French can only see a dynastic move of the vanishing Kennedy clan in the very country of the Bill of Rights. It is both surprising and appalling.”

Seems that the letter had been emailed to the paper and an editor had replied to the author with some queries — but had not heard back. Rather than calling Paris, the paper ran the letter.

The Gray Lady has rightly apologized and says it is reviewing procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It’s a refrain we’ve heard before. In cases where it is clear that someone simply bungled their job, often there is a call for a “review” of “systems” and “procedures,” as if the fault must be that no one had thought to set up the right rules ahead of time. But, no, like many such public mistakes, the problem lies with someone’s poor performance.

A new system won’t fix the problem — better employees (and possibly better management) will.

The other day I got a letter from my daughter’s school describing a dilemma that the headmaster had faced, one that his counterparts in many other schools faced too: Whether to close up shop on the day Senator Barack Obama takes office as president of the United States. The school has not in the past taken the day off.

The letter described a number of rationales for doing so this time, all couched in a bunch of “learning about political responsibility” language. Shortly after the letter from my daughter’s school, I got word that the local public school system (along with others in the greater DC area) will be shuttered that day.

These schools all say that, from now on, Inauguration Day will be a holiday.

It’s obvious that these schools and school systems are making this move because they are pleased with the choice America has made. There is no way that, had Sen. McCain been the victor, any school would be pondering a day off. This is one in a series of examples of schools and educators applying their political biases to their pupils, while professing neutrality. In order to maintain the charade, the schools must turn a one-time event (Obama’s ascension) into a policy (every Inauguration Day is a holiday). [UPDATE: See comments below; there is more nuance to this that emerges.]

The beauty of experiment in self-rule we call the United States is that there is a mechanism in place for power to change hands without bloodshed, without coup, without drama. If anything, Inauguration Day is remarkable because it is so unremarkable. Yes, this is an historic rise of an African American to a the highest elected office in the land. But to institute a holiday across the board based on it is wrong headed. While we may be excited about one particular office holder, we may be just as alarmed by the next – the point should be, instead, that daily life goes on. We go to work or school just as before.

Instead, we are treated to a day off because our guy won.

My posts have been getting longer and longer.

Must. Stop.

Why? Because people want things in bites! Half the time, my ideas are only worth a bite anyway. More to the point, blogging traffics in speed, snark, and brevity. I can do two out of three (I’m not into snark).

So I need to get shorter. I thought, as I started this, that the amount of time I was allowing myself to do each post would push me to write briefly. But I am finding what (I believe) E.B. White said, which is that it is easier to write long than short. If he didn’t say that, then it was someone as cool as him.

I am going to have to try to focus in a little more.

And keep it brief.

My friends at the Silver Spring Penguin have a great recap of the complaint filed against a pair of hot-sheet motels in Silver Spring that truly seemed to be dens of iniquity. We’re talking rampant prostitution, drug overdoses and sales at a Days Inn and a Travelodge.

One commenter says they “feel bad for out-of-towners who book rooms there not knowing any better.” I can relate. It happened to me once.

I was on doing some lobbying work a decade ago for the electric bicycle industry. Yes, there was such a thing. I was trying to convince the New Jersey legislature to create a new category of vehicle — an “electric assisted bicycle.”

I was young, had no capital, and this was my first business. I needed to save every dime. So I booked what I thought would be an inexpensive chain hotel in Trenton. Well, it sure was inexpensive — but it was a Den of Iniquity. Bulletproof glass in the lobby to protect the desk clerk. Cigarette burns all over the bedspread, with a dried pizza crust sitting in the middle in case I needed a snack.

I did not even unpack. I went downstairs to get my money back, which of course did not happen and I left anyway. As I left, I saw people all around the courtyard, leaning over the railing and giving me the fisheye, like it was a prison wing.

Since then, I have learned to be careful when staying in urban environments. Trying to save a buck can backfire! Even so, that was money that, at the time, I could not afford to throw away.

How did the trip go? Well, I was shaken down for campaign contributions to a staffer who was running for city council and my proposed bill never went anywhere. (I was successful in Washington, Oregon, and California though, so there.)

My friend Steve Clemons has written a great piece that well describes my misgivings as I watch the Caroline Kennedy train gathering steam.

It’s not that she is not the right person to take the open Senate seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton — it’s that we don’t know yet, and we have not had much of a chance to find out. What’s more, Kennedy only has to convince one person — governor David A. Paterson of New York, himself in office (in part) due to an unforeseen circumstance — that she’s the best pick.

Caroline Kennedy — when she shows she has thick-skin, can take tough-minded criticism for the mistakes she no doubt will make, and when she articulates coherent policy views on serious challenges facing the country — may make in fact make a great Senator from New York. I hope that she does and that she grows into the role. . . .

There are many questions in store for Kennedy as she pursues this Senate seat, and she needs to show a readiness to be grilled.

While the Kennedy clan is clearly one of America’s strongest and most enduring political family dynasties, the Kennedys that mattered were always the ones who stunned the public with their brilliance and tenacity.

Each of the most famous Kennedys — their audience would feel — could have been a successful political heavyweight even without the Kennedy name.

That will be the test for Caroline Kennedy. Can she show that she can be one of the best crafters of policy and one of the strongest animators of activism in ways that show that she should have always been in the Senate on her own merits — and not just because she got her resume read because of her last name?

Read it here.

The groups poised to capitalize on president-elect Obama’s sympathy for their causes — are liable to be sorely disappointed. Peter Levine points this out here.

Now comes word that pro-life pastor Rick Warren will be delivering the Inaugural invocation. And here is the disappointment (outrage, really).

So many people have poured so much of what they want to see into the empty vessel that was candidate Obama, and what we have come to know is he is much more pragmatic, both as a politician and as an office holder, than he is ideological.

Those watching him, ready to hate him, have so far given some grudging respect. Those watching, ready to love everything, are probably beginning to get a little worried.

Indeed, labor is.

But we live in a 50-50 country, which demands that you irritate your base regularly in order not only to be palatable to the other side — but to govern.

Monday night, a decent and good proposal for a new source of affordable housing in my neighborhood got defeated in our town’s City Council. I was personally in favor of it and spoke in favor of it (which a rarely do). In fact, fifty of my neighbors spoke one way or another on it — and they were split evenly down the middle for and against.

The community is deeply divided and there is not a lot of hope for compromise.

While I am disappointed in the outcome, I have been fascinated to watch another dynamic play out. I think of it as “old politics” and “new politics.” What happened was an example of new politics swamping old politics.

The “pro” organization thought it was doing everything right. It met with the local civic association, it met with council members, and so forth. It got a letter of support from the board of the civic association and everything seemed to be in order.

But then, over the summer, at a planning commission meeting, things began to go haywire. People in the neighborhood began complaining about the possibility of a new large structure with lower income people right next door. Flyers got circulated, lawn signs went up.

Neighborhood people were making pointed comments about the civic association not really representing the community’s interests.

The civic association, whose board supported the proposal, tried to respond, but it was summer, so there was no scheduled meeting, and then there were a few other slowdowns. Meanwhile, the organization that was proposing the development did not act as if it took the community opposition very seriously. While there were yard signs, flyers, and a web site opposed — in support there was just a PDF on the developer’s web page for a while. They eventually went door to door, but by then it was just about too late: they were on the defensive.

As I observed, it just seemed like the “pro” people were being outmaneuvered on a number of fronts by the “con” people. The “con” people just were doing a better job at the politics. They were led by a couple of people who had obvious organizing and message delivery skills. (They also had the wind at their back, as it is easier to oppose something than to support it, but still the mismatch seemed plain.) It was painful to watch, as I was on the “pro” side.

It was especially painful to see the difficulties the civic association was having. Its leadership did as good as it could do. But its systems and processes just weren’t set up for fast-moving, highly charged situations. It tried to keep to its timetable, and it got sidelined.

The way this unfolded is not unique to where I live. In communities all over the nation, insurgent, issue-based gorups are cropping up in neighborhoods, often led by one or two people with undeniable political acumen — and they overwhelm the existing civic systems, get done what they want to get done, and then sometimes just fade away.

I realize that the way I describe it they seem nefarious, but they are not as a whole. This is just how politics in communities increasingly gets done. People with political skill are often no longer part of the civic infrastructure, so they come and go. They move quickly.

The challenge for the existing civic structures is to figure out a way to harness this energy. Over the next decade, what will civic organizations become? How will they stay relevant?

Monday I wrote about the crumbling “paper” part of the news business. Here’s more evidence.

My hometown newspapers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press (I was a Freep reader growing up) are curtailing their home delivery to just three days per week: Thursday, Friday and Sunday. David Hunke, chief executive of the company that oversees operations of both papers said this isn’t an experiment. “I don’t think we’re ever going back.”

The $12 per month subscription package:

will also give people access to an online replica of the roughly 32-page editions of both papers that will be sold each day at newsstands. Both papers also will regularly update the news on their free Web sites, freep.com and detnews.com.

“Americans are reading with their feet. They’re walking over to the computer screen,” said Jonathan Wolman, the editor and publisher of the [Detroit] News.

I know I am (reading online, that is).

But even so, I get four newspapers delivered every day.