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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.

Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.

This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.

I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”

A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.

While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.

As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.

Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:

“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.

“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”

In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.

I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.

b99bc0a942c8981ac8bd837cab9f9544I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.

 

RIP Bob Kingston, 1929-2016.

Bob KingstonA longtime colleague — one of my teachers in the craft and science of framing public issues — has passed over the weekend.

He was a giant in the world in which I work. I treasure the many projects we worked on together — him gently yet forcefully guiding a young man into understanding what “issue framing” is and might be. He reviewed almost all of my early work with the Kettering Foundation. He was a formative influence in my understanding of how democracy can best work as it should.

Exacting yet gracious and cordial, receiving a memo from Bob always necessitated deep thought, in trying to implement the excellent corrections they invariably conveyed. But it was when I could convince him to get out his colored pen and actually edit my text when I was the most grateful. His brilliance in turning tepid concepts into razors of insight was profound. His marks seemed to magically make my prose, and therefore my thinking, better.

A fuller memorial is posted at the Kettering Foundation’s page. In it, Kettering’s president, David Mathews, says, “Bob Kingston was one of the primary architects of the modern Kettering Foundation. He is renowned for his role as editor of the Kettering Review. To say that he is irreplaceable is an understatement. All of his colleagues and associates at the foundation will sorely miss him.”

I among them.

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?

We study how democracy can best work as it should.

By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:

Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.

A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.

So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:

Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.

So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.

We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.

 

I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what we should do about a difficult shared problem.

One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.

These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.

But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.

(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)

Evernote Camera Roll 20150225 200531I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.

Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)

(click for full size in new tab)

Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.

What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.

In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.