Archives for the month of: April, 2010

My dear friend Jim Clinton, who is CEO of the Cenla Advantage Partnership, wrote a stirring piece today that I wanted to share with you. (In case you are among the uninitiated, “Cenla” is Central Louisiana.)

He writes, in part:

A few minutes ago, I heard a cry, close to a scream. It was repeated and repeated again. Couldn’t tell if it was a child or a cat, but I don’t hear many cries from either here on the second floor of The Rapides Foundation Building. I went to my window overlooking Johnston Street. I was just in time to see a woman walking with two boys, ages approximately two and four. She was holding the smaller child’s hand and I watched, she hit him hard in the face. A couple more steps and she hit him again. Three more steps and a repeat. I don’t know how many hits preceded this.

How do I work this?” I thought, referring to my conscience, my responsibility to civilization, etc. I shook off the cobwebs, ran down the stairs and into the street. I followed the threesome at some distance on Johnston towards the river. They boarded a shuttle and vanished.

Jim follows this with a meditation on his own relationship to spanking as a parent of grown children, who now has a later-in-life child to rear. He gives a wonderful explanation of how, and why, his views have evolved. I urge you to read it.

But it was the wrenching scene out his window that struck me to the bone. I know that feeling — knowing you need to do something, not sure you can, hesitating, and finally sometimes sadly missing out on the opportunity as it vanishes. How many times have we faced such a thing, and then recalled and relived the event, only this time with faster reflexes, or with surer voice? How many times do we replay what we wish we had said?

For me, the episode that stands out is a time long ago when I was in a position to hire someone. A superior convinced me to avoid the person I thought the best candidate because of something  benign that came up in the applicant’s background during the interview process.

Fearful of making waves, I did not stick to my guns. I offered someone else the job, and they did great. But I lacked courage. This was a weak decision that haunts me even now — from which I try to learn daily and draw strength from. I hope never again to stay silent as I did.

I want to thank my friend Jim for reopening this doorway and spurring me to reflect on this episode, and allowing me to renew this intention.

Today, we launched a new online magazine in Rockville that I am very excited about. It’s a brand-new magazine within the town’s go-to business and events website Rockville Living. I am the Tech Topics editor and my first piece is an interview with two brand-new iPad owners (and Apple fanboys).

I am excited about this effort for a few reasons.

rlFirst, I get to work with great people. In addition to my longtime colleague Cindy Cotte Griffiths (who co-manages Rockville Central with me and with whom I have worked on lots of other civic efforts), I get to share space with local preservationist and gourmand Max van Balgooy,  cyclist Paul Triolo, DIY gardener Diane Stuart, and — last but not least — the architect of the whole thing, Helen Triolo.

Helen has long been an inspiration for me as she has steadfastly built Rockville Living, the most important business and consumer-oriented site in Rockville, by providing a great resource and being relentlessly positive.

Here’s the rundown of this month’s articles, section by section:

Cindy has written a wonderful post on her personal blog describing her thoughts on the new magazine, which includes this:

At Rockville Living all the editors . . . [are] a team working together to promote the magazine and website. We help each other with facts for articles and suggestions for interviews, while depending on each other for encouragement and help. The more successful the site becomes with advertising, the more we will be paid. The very basis of this financial structure forces us to work as a team for success and improvement. We’re all in it together for each other and our community.

I could not say it better myself.

Thanks, Helen, for this terrific opportunity!

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.