I was fortunate enough last Thursday to be asked to speak at the Civic Innovators Forum, an invitation-only event at the Newseum, sponsored by the Case Foundation, Philanthopy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), and SplashLife.

Photo by Nick Troiano

I was asked to speak a bit about the paper I wrote for PACE in March called An Evolving Relationship – Executive Branch Approaches to Civic Engagement and Philanthropy. The paper is an overview of the last three presidential administration’s approaches to the relationship between citizens and government.

I was excited to do this, and grateful to be asked, but the talk was scheduled to come right after a panel that included arguably the key figures in civic engagement when it comes to the three administrations prior to this one. That panel, moderated by Jean Case, included Gregg Petersmeyer, Shirley Sagawa, and John Bridgeland. Gregg was the driving force behind the Points of Light in George H. W. Bush’s White House. Shirley Sagawa was instrumental in the creation of the Corporation for National and Community Service. John Bridgeland drove George W. Bush’s USA Freedom Corps.

If my report had been a book, I would have devoted a chapter to each of these towering figures. So, speaking on the heels of this remarkable panel, I realized there was little I could add. Rather than repeat, I chose to pull out some themes that I heard in the conversation, and lay them out as questions to be considered by the panel just after my remarks — this one featuring a look at where we are now and where we can go, and including present-day figures in engagement including Sonal Shah (the White House’s director of social innovation), Peter Levine (director of CIRCLE), and Steve Gunderson (CEO of the Council on Foundations and PACE board chair), moderated by Christopher T. Gates (executive director of PACE).

My Notes

Since I did not know exactly what the panel before me would say, I prepared these remarks on the spur of the moment.

Here are the key points I made:

  • When you step back from the last 20 years or so, themes emerge. Not only in terms of what government does, but also in terms of what is happening in society. While government seeks to lead, it is equally influenced by what is happening in the broader context — just as what happens in society at large is in part influenced by the mindset and actions of those in the White House. It’s a complementary relationship.
  • Main themes to consider moving forward:
    • Culture vs. Policy — Ongoing debate over which is more powerful when it come to driving change
    • Continuing debate over the proper role of government — Pendulum swingin back and forth as we re-strike social covenants
    • The power of the spotlight — This was the special genius (and courage) of President Bush’s Points of Light concept. He held the spotlight on individual acts of engagement, not just once but continually, over years. Everything afterward flowed from that one simple act
    • Need to increase nonprofit capacity — This has been a constant theme when thinking about change and how it occurs
    • New economy and its new way of thinking about organizations and change: Look outward for innovation; measure everything; use public-private partnerships to get things done — the changes in thinking that came about in the late 1990’s have left an indelible mark on society, including how we think about what constitutes an effective organization
    • Loss of friction in connection people with one another — inexorably, it has become easier and easier for people to connect. The new challenge is for institutions to help people find one another
    • The rise of service — Perhaps the most important advent of the last fifteen years, the rise of the notion of “service” has driven so many innovations in civic engagement. It is not all of civic engagement (and some worry it is crowding out important aspects), but it is undeniable that it has left a huge imprint.

Thanks very much to the sponsors of the event, especially to PACE (and Christopher T. Gates in particular), for the invitation to speak at this remarkable proceeding.