Archives for category: citizen-centric world

There is a memorable scene in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. It is the culmination of an ongoing argument between Jim Harper and Hallie Shea: Harper is a national network TV news producer and Shea is a correspondent-turned-blogger. In the 3rd season episode “Contempt,” Harper and Shea are arguing over whether Shea was right to publish (on the blog, “Carnivore”) an account of a personal fight between them.

“Your problem isn’t with me and with the site, it’s with the audience,” says Shea. “You don’t like that they like what they like because you need them to like you. . . . I think you’re threatened by technology. . . . I want to be part of the digital revolution.”

“I’m not talking about the apparatus!” Harper interrupts, exasperated.

This is a remarkable moment, not least because it is such an odd thing to exclaim. I think of this scene often when trying to describe the way I think about political systems. To me, politics is ecological, emergent.

Especially when I am talking about what community politics consists of, and what it might mean to foster a more deliberative politics. I think about the ways “the apparatus” can intrude and occlude what I am really trying to talk about.

For instance, when I describe efforts to encourage deliberative discussions on community issues — it seems that often people hear “I am promoting NIF forums.” When I describe the idea of framing issues so that the things held valuable that are in tension are made clear — people often seem to hear “writing NIF issue guides.” When I describe framing an issue so that things commonly held valuable are made clear — people hear “three strategies.” When I describe strengthening civic capacity — people hear “civic infrastructure.” When I describe institutions aligning their routines with how citizens do their work — people hear “promoting participation.”

The Concept

All of these share a common feature. They mistake the apparatus for the the concept.

This is not to say it is wrong to talk about the apparatus. It is important and a worthwhile discussion. But this is also a challenge, because talking about the apparatus can get in the way of talking about the underlying ideas. I have come to believe it is not surmountable simply by “saying it the right way.” There is something, I believe, about the element of mechanics that short circuits the ability to see and talk about the underlying ideas.

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Indeed, the very word, “system,” can become problematic. While it is the correct term to describe the ecology, dynamics and interrelationships of all the disparate actors that make up a “community,” it is easy to mishear. By “system” I mean that set of interrelationships described above. But often, the term is taken to mean something built, mechanical. It’s the same with “network.” To me, that term means a disparate and interlocking set of relationships between and among people and other entities. Networks, in this understanding, emerge. But when the term is commonly used, it is often understood in the way computer networks are understood: as built artifacts.

As I try to explain what an ecology of political life in a community might look like and consist of, people will nod and affirm, “You are talking about systems. Networks. Yes. I get it.” But as we talk, it becomes clear that they think of systems and networks as built things. (They are thinking in machinebrain terms.)

And thus the conversation turns to the apparatus, which pushes out the concept I am trying to get at.

This is an area of research for me where I work. We often talk about it as a linguistic or technical problem: “How can we talk about these ideas in such a way that they are understood?” But even these articulations let the apparatus (of language) get in the way of the idea.

It is really a fundamental question. How is it that the insights of deliberative politics can come to be understood? What blocks this? What encourages it? (Note the passive construction, which is on purpose. Not how can I say them. But how can others understand them.)

This question is articulated throughout our research program and its strategic basis in more and less direct ways. The challenges we face in this area, though, are persistent.

I am traveling today, so rather than post a lengthy article, I’d instead like to point you to a friend’s piece from earlier this year.

One of my favorite thinkers on public life (and a good friend and colleague), John Creighton, wrote a wide-ranging essay as the new year turned about the mood of America. He suggests that, in addition to some of the long-standing core concerns that Americans express for security, control, and meaning — we add “balance.”

John makes an excellent case and I urge you to read his entire thoughtful article.

Here’s an excerpt:

The first three qualities – security, control and meaning – tend to develop as a package.  As a person establishes personal and financial security, she also gains a sense of control over her life.  We have expression to reinforce the importance people place on security and control – for instance, “Everyone is a king in his own home.”  Public policy often reinforces these values, too. . . .

In many ways, Americans have come full circle since World War II.  We have enjoyed riches and opportunities unprecedented in history.  Yet, at the end of a long run, we crave the same things people have always wanted: security, control (freedom) and meaning, now, leavened with a healthy dose of balance.

What’s different is that we must learn to achieve these lifestyle aspirations in a context unknown to our parents and grandparents.  The structures of work, learning, socializing and many other aspects of daily life that defined the lives of generations of Americans are quickly fading away.

Time, geography, and social norms, for instance, once forced healthy limits upon our consumption. Now it is possible to instantly satisfy nearly any legitimate need and frivolous whim at any time – 24/7/365 (a set of numbers seldom if ever used in this way until the rise of the internet).  The ability to gain instant gratification will not go away.  Instead, we must learn to strike balance in our lives with temptation lurking on our shoulder, incessantly whispering in our ear.

Thanks for an important contribution, John.

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.”

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.

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does ‘Support’ Look Like?

Yesterday on the DC Metro, I found myself seated behind someone who was reviewing the minutes from a board meeting. I don’t normally read over shoulders but this was just about being shoved in my face. The font was large and clear and had lots of bold. I recommend that people think twice about what sensitive documents they peruse in public — I am not proud to say I could not stop myself from glancing along.

Be Careful, Stick Figure by Flickr user chad_k

'Be Careful, Stick Figure' by Flickr user chad_k

The heading proclaimed these as the minutes from the meeting of a very high profile national advocacy organization. This is an organization that has been around for decades and has been very effective in changing national views on a range of issues. (I am not saying what group this is.)

The page my travelling companion was reading recapped a contentious discussion about membership. Turns out that this organization has fewer than 60,000 members. That caught me up short. It seemed wildly out of step with the organization’s powerful profile.

It also opens up a window into the crisis of confidence that large nonprofit institutions are  facing throughout society. Everywhere you turn, you see formerly-major institutions losing relevancy and crumbling. They are good organizations that do good work. But they are running into brick walls all over the place. The United Way, the League of Women Voters, many public broadcasting stations, and more. Community benefit organizations are facing more difficulty in fundraising, and increasing skepticism. And memberships are falling off the cliff.

Shrinking memberships is a real problem for these organizations, as dues are one of their important revenue sources. Here’s one thing that I believe is going on: The perceived value of my membership has increased. That is, it takes a lot more to get me to “join” an organization now than it used to.

There are many reasons for this. An argument could be made that declining membership rolls are reflective of a sector that is ripe for a shakeup. That may be part of it. But there is a broader force as well.

There are now more ways to show one’s support of a cause, campaign, or organization than there used to be. From easy “liking” and “fanning” on Facebook to retweets, online petitions, and blog comments, the spectrum of options available to prospective members has widened and deepened. Actual, dues-paying membership is ‘way over there at the edge.

Effective organizations are taking account of this and are finding new ways to find revenue (creating for-profit non-profit hybrids), and using new metrics besides just  “members.” For mission-based organizations, focusing on “members” will undercount your actual influence and distort your operations, taking you off mission. More important is having a good understanding about how people move from one form of support to another, what levers you can push to encourage that, and what the utility is of each form of support.