Archives for the month of: December, 2009

My friend Peter Levine is, in my estimation, the gold standard when it comes to blogging about civic engagement in general and youth civic engagement in particular. His content stream includes a terrific combination of big-think ideas, small observations, and off-topic seasoning to make sure it all holds our interest. When I started blogging in 2003, I viewed him as an icon that I hoped to try to emulate (I still do).

Occasionally Peter writes a piece that wraps up a number of thoughts into one clear statement. I treasure these. Today’s article is one of those sorts of pieces.

In pulling together his thoughts to make a presentation to a number of Boston high school students who are part of a program focused on engagement.

He outlines a handful of the key issues facing our society today, and he does so in a clear, compelling, non-ideological way:

Peter Levine, from his website

Peter Levine, from his website

We have put 2.3 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the world. (China comes second with only 1.5 million incarcerated people.) That is incredibly expensive, and it represents millions of tragedies for all those convicts and their victims. Yet imprisoning all those Americans doesn’t make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.

We spend more per kid on education than almost any other country, yet one third of our young people drop out before they complete high school. Considering that almost all stable and well-paying jobs today require more than a high-school diplomat, the dropout crisis is a human disaster.

We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world, yet unlike any other wealthy nation, we provide no health insurance at all for many of our people. Something like 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of medical care. Even if Congress passes a reform bill this year, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes for poorer people.

Most scientists believe that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm by taking stored carbon out of the earth in the form of oil, gas, and coal and burning it. The consequences of global warming may range from intense human suffering in the poorest parts of the globe, plus the extinction of animal and plant species, to a worldwide catastrophe. The United States burns more carbon per person by far than any country in the world except the tiny kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful; it is deadly. They are not just broken; they are corrupt–making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us. These are the institutions that we older people are handing over to you.

While it is tempting, for each of these problems, to want to throw money at it or to write a new law to fix it, Peter points out that this response is insufficient. “To make schools and neighborhoods and hospitals work better, you have to get inside them and change people’s hearts and minds–not reform just the rules or provide more cash,” he says.

In general, our politics is governments-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk. . . . [A] state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Generation Citizen [the program these youth are a part of] is an example of citizen-centered politics, in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state. . . .

Programs like Generation Citizen model open-ended politics. . . . We give [citizens] opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

I do not normally quote at such length, and I hope Peter will not mind. You should read the whole piece, as he makes many more important points than the few I excerpt here.

Thank you, Peter, for an important addition to my day.

Jerry Brown by Flickr user Freedom to Marry

Jerry Brown by Flickr user Freedom to Marry

In this week’s edition of my podcast, Public Life Today, since it’s holiday season and everyone’s thoughts are turning to the lighter side, I thought I would tell the funny story about the day that former California governor Jerry Brown came to visit me in my apartment.

I’ll always remember that day, in large part because of his hilarious quip upon entering the den of iniquity my room mate and I called home.


Click here to subscribe to Public Life Today using iTunes!

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

Philanthropy: Too Scared To Fail?

The paper of record for the charitable community, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, yesterday reported on a new study by the Cambridge-based Center for Effective Philanthropy. While the report itself focuses primarily on the ways foundations use strategic planning, the most dramatic finding has to do with how foundations evaluate whether their good works are working.

Ask foundations if they are having impact, and almost eight in ten (78%) foundation leaders say they are. Ask them if they actually have measures to determine whether this is true, and just 26% say they measure all of their work. (Thirty nine percent say they measure the effectiveness of some of their work.)

That’s bad enough. But push them a little harder and ask them to point to the specific measures they use to determine how effective their work is, and only 8% of foundation leaders can identify their metrics.

As a person who has managed grant-funded projects, I have watched the field of philanthropy actively embrace strategic planning and measurement. Every new grant proposal these days has to have a “logic model” (that is, a credible reason to think that it might work) and some way of assessing or proving impact. That latter gives community benefit organizations fits, because for many programs it’s hard to figure out what to measure. A soup kitchen can measure number of meals served, but what about a civic engagement effort? Just looking for an uptick in voter turnout is a ham handed approach.

Indeed, evaluation and assessment is the current Holy Grail throughout the independent sector. There have been very promising advances made in actually measuring the kinds of things that used to be seen as unmeasurable. (For instance, the National Conference on Citizenship has developed a very well-rounded measure of engagement.)

brokenmirror 012 by Flickr user Paul J Everett

brokenmirror 012 by Flickr user Paul J Everett

But it is disconcerting to learn that foundations, who are fundamentally beholden to no constituency and so ought to be able to take the most risks – are the most risk averse. So risk-averse, it seems, many would rather not look at the data to find out how well their programs are working. They don’t seem to want to look in the mirror.

Philanthropy philosopher Sean Stannard Stockton has written recently about how ironic this is in general, and has pointed out a few foundations that are bucking the trend: the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation.

As a member in good standing of the nonprofit community, I urge foundations to apply the same metrics they demand of others to themselves – and, at the same time, to take on more risk. Foundations can withstand failure and they ought to embrace it. Nonprofit community benefit organizations, on the front lines and dependent on others for funding, cannot so well afford the same kinds of risks without a safety net.

Much has been written about the Obama administration’s early commitment to create a more open and transparent government. In May the White House announced the Open Government Initiative, whose mission is to make all of government more open.

Yesterday, in a move watched closely by many in the civic participation field, the administration released the Open Government Directive. (pdf)

OG (Open Government) gang sign by Flickr user joebeone

OG (Open Government) gang sign by Flickr user joebeone

The Open Government Directive is the result of much internal work as well as comments from people across the transparency and civic participation fields. It contains the basic instructions to every agency for how they are to comply with the overall mandate of “being more open.”

The basic mechanism is that each agency must create a web space (“”) that is devoted to the Open Government Initiative. At this “/open” site, the agency must house at least three high-value datasets that are not now available.

The timeline for all this is (thanks Intellitics for this ):

  • Within 45 days: establish a working group that focuses on transparency, accountability, participation, and collaboration within the Federal Government. …
  • Within 60 days: create an Open Government Dashboard on  The Open Government Dashboard (to include each agency’s Open Government Plan, aggregate statistics and visualizations)
  • Within 120 days: each agency shall develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.

Of interest: According to Politico, “Each agency [also] will be required to post its annual report to the Justice Department on Freedom of Information Act requests, including the total number of requests granted and denied and the reasons given for the denials.”

While the move was applauded by the transparency community (for instance, the policy director of the Sunlight Foundation referred to it as “enormous,” and indeed the list of commitments from agencies when it comes to transparency is already impressive), many in the civic participation field are less sanguine.

“I was underwhelmed,” wrote Fielding Graduate University professor emeritus W. Barnett Pearce in a post to an influential mailing list run by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. “[I]t seemed very much like the ‘town hall meeting’ concept – the government shows/tells/lets us look on the website to see what they are doing, and then we can line up for our three minutes/send in our comments to their email inboxes or a listserve.”

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

It’s An Extrovert’s World, But Technology Allows Introverts A Toehold

I recently spent time in a group with a public leader who is very clearly an introvert. Whenever it was her turn to speak, she would pause to think about what to say. People would hang on each sentence, waiting to see what was said. It was clearly a struggle for some in the room not to jump in and interrupt.

dave with a megaphone by Flickr user NatalieHG

"dave with a megaphone" by Flickr user NatalieHG

This experience drove home to me the fact that we live in a world organized and run by extroverts. By “extrovert” I mean the term according to the definition used by the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a widely used psychological profiling tool. An extrovert is not necessarily loud and boorish – an extrovert gains their energy from interactions with others. (Here is a video about how this all works.)

By the same token, an introvert is not necessarily shy – an introvert gains their energy from being alone. Think of it this way: An extrovert recharges by being with people; an introvert recharges by seeking seclusion. Most studies I have read show that there are more extroverts than introverts in the world. Some peg the share of introverts at 25%. (To be fair, some studies say it’s more 50-50.)

Regardless of the numbers, extroverts have set the social norms in society. Jonathan Rauch has written the definitive column on this subject. Being outgoing is seen as friendly and positive. Being silent is seen as being “aloof” or arrogant. An outgoing extrovert has to cross a definite line before they are seen as irritating; whereas, for an introvert, not speaking creates a presumption of disinterest.

But, a major change is afoot. Social media has leveled the playing field somewhat. You don’t have to be an extrovert to be outgoing.

This is opening up public leadership to new people. Success does not need to come with schmoozing and glad-handing, it can come through effective sharing and diligently working online networks.

It will not work for everybody, but it is already beginning to work for some.