Archives for the month of: June, 2010

As you may recall, in May my friends at PACE-Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement released a white paper I authored. Titled An Evolving Relationship – Executive Branch Approaches to Civic Engagement and Philanthropy, it is based on a briefing paper I wrote for a White House meeting earlier this year between leaders of the philanthropic community and Executive Branch officials.

Now, I am excited to let you know about a webinar we have just scheduled to discuss the paper and some of the ideas it may spark.

This from the PACE announcement:

Report available from PACE

In May of this year PACE-Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement released ‘An Evolving Relationship’, a white paper based on a briefing memo prepared for a White House meeting held earlier this year between leaders of the philanthropic community and a variety of Obama Administration officials representing both the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service. The paper argues that a number of key trends in Administration approaches to civic engagement are now intersecting and suggests a great deal of possibility for moving forward in the near future.

Promoting civic engagement is a clear priority for both the Obama Administration and key leaders in the philanthropic community. More and more foundations are making increased commitments to the fields of deliberative dialogue, civic engagement and democratic practice. The white paper explores both the recent history of the relationship between the Executive Branch and philanthropy and prospects for future collaboration.

Chris Gates, the Executive Director of PACE, will moderate the webinar.

Brad Rourke, the author of the white paper, be be the presenter.

Title: PACE Webinar, ‘An Emerging Relationship: The Executive Branch, Philanthropy and Civic Engagement’
Date: Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Time: 2:00 PM – 3:15 PM EDT

After registering you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the Webinar.

To reserve your space at this FREE webinar, just go here:

Hope to see you there!

Just a few things I don’t understand:

  • Why are 90% of beauty salons named with a pun? (“Shear Energy.” “The Mane Event.”)
  • Why do real estate and insurance agents have their photos on their business cards, when it actually makes them seem less trustworthy?
  • Why do bureaucrats (and people who aspire to bureaucratism) say “at this time?” What is that supposed to mean?

What don’t you understand?

One of my very first clients when I started working independently (I hung out my own shingle back in November 2003) was a group called the Policy Consensus Initiative, along with its sister organization the National Policy Consensus Center. I will always be grateful to PCI’s founder Chris Carlson and NPCC’s director Greg Wolf for giving me that needed boost in the early days. My work with PCI-NPCC involved helping them develop a strategic plan along with some key language and taglines.

PCI-NPCC works to increase the adoption of collaborative governance (where office holders use their innate convening power to bring together all parties to craft solutions to hard problems, working across sector and across jurisdictions) at the state and local level. Getting everyone involved together to work toward a solution seems like common sense, but one interesting facet of this work is that many of the rules and structures in government make it very difficult to do this.

I was therefore excited to learn of a new bill passed in Minnesota that establishes a “Collaborative Governance Council,” that includes office holders as well as others, with the goal of reducing barriers to collaboration.

Here is the article from PCI-NPCC’s newsletter:

Rep. Marsha Swails (l.) and Rep. Carol McFarlane (r.) high five after completion of the bill establishing Collaborative Governance Council

Rep. Marsha Swails (l.) and Rep. Carol McFarlane (r.) high five after completion of the bill establishing Collaborative Governance Council

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law to create a Collaborative Governance Council that will increase collaboration between state and local government.

The law creates a 12-member council to develop recommendations to increase governmental collaboration by:

  • reviewing laws and rules that slow collaboration efforts;
  • using technology to connect entities and share information;
  • modernizing financial transactions and facilitating credit and debit card transactions, electronic funds, transfers and electronic data interchanges; and
  • creating model forms for joint power agreements.

The council will include the State Auditor and a member of the League of Minnesota Cities; Minnesota Association of Townships; Association of Minnesota Counties; Minnesota School Board Association; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 5; MN Chamber of Commerce; Education Minnesota; and Service Employees International Union.

The bill was a bi-partisan effort, co-sponsored by Rep. Marsha Swails and Rep. Carol McFarlane.

Initially, Reps. Swails and McFarlane convened a work group to examine shared services among school districts in Minnesota. Swails, a high school teacher, described the work group as “an informal process that was more like a classroom than anything else.” McFarlane and Swails traveled across the state together, attending Education Service Cooperative meetings, and heard more stories about the challenges local governments encountered in attempts to share services among school districts or among other units of government, such as fire departments. From these discussions, McFarlane and Swails realized that the question underlying many of these conversations was “what are the obstacles that keep communities from sharing?”

Swails noted that while some groups were initially skeptical of what the workgroup would accomplish, “Carol and I kept asking them to come to meetings. Building trust was key to getting people to want to be part of a solution, and so we did what we could to break down formalities. Carol and I sat at the witness table facing the group in the galley and engaged them in lively discussions rather than a formal hearing process”

As the bill passed in the House, 108-22, Rep. Swails twittered, “True bi-partisan work brought this to reality. Most important bill of my two terms.”

State auditor Rebecca Otto, who will chair the Council, said, “”Local governments are already collaborating, but we want to identify other areas where they could collaborate in these tight times. If there are laws in the way of allowing that to happen, we will make recommendations to change current statute.”

The Council’s first meeting will take place by July 30th of this year.

Andrea Jarrell drew my attention to this talk by one of the deepest thinkers about the new structures in society, Clay Shirky. In this talk, Shirky describes the idea of cognitive surplus, and relates it to the way media gets produced and consumed.

I urge you to watch the whole fifteen minutes, it is chock full of important thoughts, engagingly presented:

The large point Shirky makes is that society is only now beginning to figure out what to do with what he calls the “cognitive surplus” that was created as the prosperity kicked off after World War II gave people leisure time that they had not had. For decades, television was what people “did” with the time they had in the evenings and weekends — time society had not had before.

Now, as technology has expanded the options of “things to do” with leisure time, we have seen the growth of new activities. People are creating their own media, and sharing what they create. This is not just popular media, it is also new online projects, lines of research, and creative efforts. Old-line media production organizations (TV networks, movie studios, and publishers) see this interest in self-production as a blip, but Shirky sees it as a fundamental, one-time shift that is not unlike the Industrial Revolution in scope.

His point: there were always three things people liked to do with media (consume it, produce it, and share it). But until recently the high cost of production and sharing allowed a structure to grow up that focused only on producing media for consumption. Now that it is easier to produce and share, the three legs of the stool will equalize, as people pay more attention to their own.

Shirky ends with a story of a dinner party where a friend’s four-year-old daughter is watching a DVD. Suddenly, she gets up and runs behind the TV, rooting around in the cables. “Whatcha doing, honey?” asks her father. “Looking for the mouse,” she replies.

“A four-year-old knows that a video screen that ships without a mouse ships broken,” observes Shirky. The little girl wanted to interact with her show.

Current and future generations know intuitively that media that does not allow for interaction will seem flat and useless.

Cognitive Surplus and Institutions

In the work John Creighton and I have done on the new citizen-centered society, we’ve seen a similar phenomenon. Citizens are less and less willing to adapt themselves to the needs of institutions, and are demanding that things go the opposite way. Institutions that do not recognize this have a rude awakening coming.

It is instructive to relate Shirky’s argument to public institutions and politics in general. Richard Harwood’s landmark report for the Kettering Foundation in 1991, Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street, pointed out that Americans are not apathetic but instead feel pushed out of politics. Politics is no longer relevant to the day-to-day concerns of Americans — and political institutions are no longer looked to as a means of solving problems.

(Note that I am not saying the “government” should solve problems. I am describing the use of political structures for helping us decide what to do and organize our response. For instance, the town meeting.)

Since 1991, Harwood’s research and others shows that, if anything, the alienation of people from formal public life has increased.

“Looking for the Mouse” In Public Life

At the same time, however, in other areas of life, the new realities have begun to take hold. People are “looking for the mouse” when they deal with institutions.

What will this nascent change look like as it moves forward?

Some public institutions have begun to respond, in small ways and not always the best ways — but it’s begun. Florida, for example, now requires all school districts to have a formal online learning component. You can view the rise in voluntarism, in part, as an element int he same trend.

We are also seeing experiments where the formal structures are designed to allow citizen involvement (for instance, changes in how Californians operate their primary elections). Some of these experiments will work and others will fail. But the overall trend will be toward more citizen control not less.

One small trend that seems positive is the growth of on-the-ground efforts at more participatory democracy. Localities are the true laboratories of democracy, and some are beginning to rely more on dialog and engagement with citizens in order to make decisions. This is only happening in pockets, but it represents a response to the new citizen-centric demands that public life is placing on formal institutions.

As cognitive surplus increases, and as people begin to understand what they can do with it, such experiments will gain momentum and some may even become new norms.

We don’t know what the change will look like, but we can bet that it will involve “looking for the mouse.”

I was doing some house cleaning in my “Brad Personal” folder and ran across these cool optical illusions. No doubt you’ve seen some of them before, but I like them collected in one place:

Old woman . . . or young girl?

Old woman . . . or young girl?

Man playing a horn? Or a woman in silhouette?

Man playing a horn? Or a woman in silhouette?

Two faces, or one?

Two faces, or one?

Is this a rabbit, or a duck?

Is this a rabbit, or a duck?