As many of my readers know, I have been thinking with my colleague John Creighton about the role of institutions in public life. We have been discussing the rise of the citizen-centric world and the resulting erosion of our previous institution-centric lifestyles.

In his most recent article at the Washington Times Communities in his blog Dispatches From The Heartland, John has just about the best explanation of the concept that I have seen yet. The argument we have been building is in three parts. First, why do we have institutions? Here’s how John puts it:

People once were dependent upon institutions to decide and do things on their behalf.  The capital and transaction costs required for people to decide and do things for themselves were too high. . . . It made practical sense to delegate authority and dollars — with representative community oversight — to centralized organizations.

Communities once were so dependent upon institutions the social expectation was that people should conform their lives to the operational needs of institutions.  For instance, people were expected to show up for work, take breaks and vacations at institutionally prescribed times.  Our language reflects these expectations — working 9 to 5, lunch break, night shift, spring break, summer vacation, etc.  Institutional parameters are baked into public policies — 40 hour work week, mandatory school hours, etc.

The second part of the argument relates to why institutions (or, better put, institution-centric institutions) are no longer working as they used to:

New (and not so new) technologies now make it practical for people to decide and do things for themselves. The capital and transaction costs that once made independent action impractical are moving toward zero. . . . Indeed, the problems that led communities to delegate authority and dollars to centralized organizations are slowly — and in many cases rapidly — going away. Yet, institutions continue to do what they were originally designed to do. . . . Now that people have access to tools that make it practical to decide and do things for themselves a new set of public attitudes, values and expectations are emerging. People are no longer willing to conform their lives to the needs of institutions. They won’t accept mass-market products. They won’t accept being forced to be part of an institutionally (geographically) defined community. And, they aren’t willing to accept an institution’s authority at face value. Indeed, many people would rather abandon an institution than try to influence its direction.

The third part of this concept is forward-looking. People still need institutions — only they must look different than they have in the past. They must be citizen-centric. Whereas people in years past have conformed their lives to the needs of institutions, this has inverted and now institutions must conform to the needs of citizens.

Here is the rub: There is no consensus about what that would look like. It is easy to point to successful organizations, mostly for-profit companies, and say that these collectively make up the best practices when it comes to what new institutions ought to look like. For instance, look at Facebook, Apple, Google, and (yes) Microsoft — what do they have in common that makes them useful as institutions to their constituents?

But this may not be a useful comparison. Organizations with a public trust may not be able to model themselves fully on private, for-profit organizations. On still another hand, though, entities like Facebook are becoming de facto public institutions in many important ways. Simply pounding the table and saying “companies can’t be public institutions!” is not an adequate response.

There is not enough concrete work on this in the civic engagement field (my field). Among “practitioners,” people have divided into camps over which technical method of engaging citizens is best. Among the thinkers, much more energy is spent making the case that “civic engagement is good” than is spent thinking about what new and useful institutions might look like.

With any luck, this will change.