Five Civic Dangers

The other weekend I was at a meeting hosted by the National Civic League where we discussed the state of civic America. The question on the table was an open-ended: What are you seeing in America today? What civic trends are there?

There were many community-building types at the meeting, and they had a lot to say. There are many examples of progress — cities and regions coming together to solve common problems, individuals taking concrete steps for change, new programs creating new ways of interacting. There are also many brick walls — underfunding by philanthropic organizations, dearth of media coverage on issues that matter, policies implemented at the state and federal level that make community building excruciatingly difficult.

All this is true. But, while there is a lot of activity, as well as many barriers to progress, the question on the table really seemed to invite a deeper discussion. What are we seeing across efforts? What commonalities are there?

One commonality is that citizens seem to fall into the same traps as they try to move forward. There are five of these “civic dangers:”

Old reflexes. Often, when a group of citizens or network of civic groups comes together, they have done a great job of identifying the problems they want to work on — but they look to tried-and-true solutions that are neither tried nor true any longer. They see the need for new legislation, or a lobbying effort for different funding, or for a different kind of candidate to become elected. Reflexes like this diminish the role of citizens themselves. They are in fact anti-civic in nature insofar as they treat the solution to the problem as “over there,” in someone else’s hands, rather than in my own. It’s not every problem that has a uniquely civic solution, but the frequency with which I see groups lapse into traditional issue-politics thinking is troubling.

Doing too much. Other times, when groups begin to identify and work on public problems, they are enthused about the possibilities. They begin to want to solve the whole problem themselves, rather than focus on a piece that they can manage. This can kill momentum. A group of citizens I know in Toledo were single-handedly successful in changing the nature of a mayor’s race — but they are disappointed and dispirited because there are a host of other political ills in the city that they haven’t made a dent in. They’ve succeeded, but they think they’ve failed.

Leadership. In communities across America, people agree leadership is important. For over a decade, the word has been the touchstone for change: change always requires leaders. This has driven an increase in “leadership training” offerings. It seems every new initiative must have a leadership training component, and the outfits lining up to provide the training are myriad. But there’s leadership and then there’s leadership. It is a rare leadership training program that truly cultivates the civic sensibilities needed to stick with community change over the long haul. Many such programs are really only designed to replace an “old-boy” network with a “new-boy” network: the way things get done is still dependent on informal interactions of elites. The Harwood Institute, the Kettering Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are doing groundbreaking work in truly civic leadership and hopefully it will spread.

e-Fatuation. I have seen this one many times. Often as a group begins to gather momentum, they take notice of new technologies and begin to wonder how they can be used to further their efforts. They read about political campaigns that are said to use the Internet in new ways and see themselves benefiting from such an approach. But the tech-savvy and the neophyte alike seem to get blinded by the gadgetry. I call this e-fatuation. They see a website as an end in itself; they see bulletin board systems as a substitute for face-to-face interactions; they see increasing listerv subscribers as an indicator of effectiveness. As this happens, groups can easily lose sight of the humanity in which the technology is to be in service of. Or, they can lose sight of what they want to accomplish and the tail wags the dog. The result, as so many initiatives have shown, is a lot of online activity — and precious little change.

Finally, the meeting highlighted another troubling trend in American civic life: the professionalization of change agents. There are more and more consultants and organizations who specialize in bringing “technical assistance” to bear on public problems. On the one hand, this is a good thing: there is depth on the civic change bench. On the other hand, it’s very, very bad. It can rob citizens of the very participation they crave by setting the consultants up as “change experts,” letting everyone else off the hook. The hallmark of truly civic efforts is that citizens see themselves as holding the keys to the solution. To the extent that it is consultants — all well-meaning — who hold those keys, the citizens become mere clients and change gets driven by the hired and not the implicated.

These civic dangers are not civic destiny. They are simply things to watch out for as we try to make progress in common. Thankfully, these dangers carry with them the seeds of their own solution. Here is how I have seen groups of citizens avoid these civic traps:

Play politics as unusual. This relates not only to how you go about it but also to what you go after. Examples of this approach can be seen in many places — unusual coalitions coming together to push for change.

Take small steps. In Toledo, a group of citizen reformers think they’ve failed because all politics has not changed, they actually succeeded. Why? Their effort focused tightly on one political race in one place — and that did indeed change.

Uncover leadership, don’t train it. The Kellogg Foundation has an approach to leadership development that starts at the community level — and stays there. Rather than “identifying” (and so separating out) leaders, this approach develops leadership traits across the community, recognizing that on some issues, in some places certain people will emerge as leaders and others will follow. There is existing leadership already in communities, people who are already looked to as sources of information and as moral exemplars. Those people need to be nurtured, not anointed.

Stay human. Which barbershop should you go to? The messy one, of course: that’s the one where the barber hasn’t had time to sweep up because the haircuts are so good the customers are stacked two deep. Which community change efforts are really moving forward? The ones it’s hard to find unless you’re part of the community. Sure, you need a website so people can find you — but stop there. Don’t try to compete with AOL and create an “online community” if you don’t need one.

Go organic. The stable of “community change experts” is large; they all sell competing processes. One may use an “electronic town meeting” in order to get as many people into one room as possible; another may have a series of “community conversations” building on one another over time. The reality is that which route you go matters far less than who is involved and why. So, shop carefully for your expert. Do they like people and want to help them move forward? Or, are they policy wonks preaching “good government?” Both are needed — but most communities need someone on their side, as opposed to someone using them to achieve an ideological end.

These are by no means the only pitfalls that might be encountered, nor the complete list of must-dos. They are only among the most common. As social entrepreneurship and citizen engagement becomes more widespread, the danger that group after group will hit a brick wall grows.

But, with some planning, those brick walls can be avoided and efforts to work for progress can thrive.

The Message

The meeting still seems very vivid, even years later. I had traveled from Maine to our nation’s capital to be there. It was in the conference room of a national grassroots organization; one of the groups that everyone agrees is made up of good folks. We were designing a course to teach first-time political candidates how to campaign ethically and still win. All of us had campaign experience.

“Candidates need to get their message out in new ways,” one person said. Another said, “They need help crafting their message.” Still another threw in, “They need to look at their message and who it will resonate with.”

What was all this talk about message?

The notion of a “message” has become so ingrained in politics that it is received wisdom — and that wisdom has crossed over to the population at large. Everyone, it seems, understands “message.” People vote for candidates “because they like their message.” People complain that Democrats “no longer have a coherent message.” People vote — or don’t — in order to “send a message,” as if the ballot box were at Western Union and not the local elementary school.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1. It diminishes the importance of the choice I make. If I am choosing between messages, then that means that whoever has been more technically skilled at campaigning will get my vote. It’s really like choosing Pepsi over Coke because I like the words “new generation” more than “real thing.”

2. But, worse still, it turns the public square into simply a machine to generate electoral power. It treats citizens as simply means to an end: election. They are not “citizens,” they are “voters.” And it assumes that what I stand for does not matter; what matters is how I talk about it.

Our abilities to campaign — our campaign technologies — have far outstripped our ability to keep up with them ethically. And I don’t mean the Internet. I mean the way we think about promotion and marketing. We are so skilled at promotion and marketing that we are playing with fire. In the marketplace, this has no worse consequence than the ability to make mediocre movies into blockbusters simply on the strength of the marketing campaign. Think here of the Matrix franchise.

But, in the public square, our skills at marketing and promotion have dire results. Recall my friends in the meeting I attended, worrying about how best to teach message development. Almost anyone can be elevated to a position of seeming leadership and, given the right confluence of events, can be placed in power — all on the power of their marketing campaign and regardless of their fundamental fitness for office, skills, abilities, qualifications or even temperament. Think of Governor-elect Schwarzenegger, who won California’s recall election not on the strength of anything he had done, or of any principles on which he had built his life or claimed to follow. His success was built on the effectiveness of two messages: 1) “The economy is bad and it is the current administration’s fault;” and 2) “Things ought to change.” And the citizens of California responded. In the words of one analyst recently, “As voters wanted, the recall brought change. But change to what? Now come the bigger questions. . . .” This is just one example; there are many more.

In the last decade, there has been a massive explosion in “media literacy.” Audiences are sophisticated about things they never used to give a thought to. Woe betide the candidate who lets him- or herself appear tired, or at all disheveled — when production values are lost, the public turns away.

While we are technically adept at examining how well a candidate speaks on the stump, we fail to examine what she or he says. Strangely, it is our very sophistication that has blinded us to reality. We’re too savvy for our own good.

As the presidential campaigns of 2004 switch into high gear, let us look less at how the campaigns are run, and think more about what they are saying. Let 2004 be a year that we get just a little less smart.

The Disconnect: Two to Tango?

I have heard (and read) many people complain about how out of touch political leaders are from average Americans. How true. Just think of former President Bush marveling at the grocery scanner device, or former Vice President Gore’s “no controlling legal authority” apology that was the most totally off-the-mark mea (non) culpa in recent memory. These and other political leaders are, truly, out of touch with what people think and feel in the real world. And many more current examples come to mind without much effort.

But here is my question: how many average Americans are at all in touch with the notions underlying responsible self-governance? Aren’t we “ordinary folks” just as guilty?

Think about it:

* We treat candidates for office as if they are “applying for a job” and we are the “bosses” — rather than understanding that we are seeking to find leaders in whom we will place our trust.

* We demand a stance on every little issue, with the implicit understanding that, if we don’t hear what we want, we will pick someone else for the “job.” And, woe betide the candidate who has no response, or who learns something new and so changes their views — we will say they have no conviction and that they flip-flop on the issues.

* All too many of us rely on campaign advertisements to inform ourselves. Those few of us who go beyond that only seek out information from sources we already agree with — and so our biases are perpetuated.

* We say people should “get involved” — but how many of us have really done anything that could count as involvement, like volunteer on a campaign or attend a public meeting?

* We demand “public financing” or “campaign finance reform” as if the enterprise of running for office were dirty and money should never touch it — but few of us have ever donated anything besides money (time, for instance) to a candidate whom we admire.

It is little wonder that the least-leaderly among us choose to run for office under such circumstances. Who would want to lead ingrates like us?

Of course, we’re not all so bad. Many who are reading this are no doubt part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

But, while we are patting ourselves on the back, we might ask ourselves, looking deep inside our civic souls: what have we done lately to bridge the disconnect? What have we done lately that could really be counted as a step towards a solution?

I know that, when I get honest about it, I will not like the answer I give. How about you?

Candidates' Night Is No Help

Last night I went to a nearby local candidates’ forum. What struck me is just how bad the entire experience was. Yes, I know that’s heresy.

This should have been no surprise. On some level, it wasn’t — across America, local politics is always marked by an amateurish, “Our Gang” feel (you know, “Let’s put on a show in the barn!”). But I realized during the event that recently I’d romanticized democracy. “Citizens” had become these idealized, democratic beings who just want to make the best choice come Election Day. “Candidates” had become, in my mind, altruistic characters who sacrifice their time and energy for the greater good. And “candidate debates” such as the one I had attended had become the apex of democratic process, the perfect place in which democracy is practiced.

What was I thinking?

The candidates sounded fine — but only fine. The choice folks are facing in November is not much of one: knock out the shrill, fringe candidates and whatever they do collectively in the voting booth will garner well-meaning folks who will try their best. No one stood out as a leader. But, one may argue, that’s not the role of municipal government. We can’t have Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan as mayor in every town.

No, it’s the group of civic associations that put on the event that was the most disappointing. The event created an experience that actually worsened people’s relationship — if there had been any — with the candidates. So much of what the organizers had done in the name of “getting more input” from citizens created a barrier between the audience and the folks up on the stage.

First, questions were solicited in advance from citizens. That’s a good thing — it allows people’s concerns to be addressed. But the questions were read verbatim and so were all slanted according to the questioner’s biases. Here’s one: “In the past, we have developed property and then assessed its traffic impact. What are you going to do to make the planning process more logical?” The moderators needed to put their own biases aside and rephrase the questions so there wasn’t an obvious “right” answer.

Second, the candidates were given no free time in which to talk about their vision, who they are, and why they are running for office. Citizens got no sense of who those people were. All they learned was how they responded to loaded questions.

Third, the candidates only had a minute to respond to each question. That’s long enough for a platitude about “working together,” or “communicating more,” or maybe even one about “making the tough choices for the people” — but it’s not long enough to say anything else. The incumbents, in an effort to sound competent, filled their sixty seconds with acronyms of ordinances and initiatives they had been working on, confusing any in the audience who were not professional city council-watchers. The challengers, for their allotments of time, dwelled instead on the lying, evil ways and shortcomings of the current administration — or they talked about “working together” more.

The shame of it is that this local candidates’ night was completely ordinary. Events like this are going on across the country, organized in the same way with the same results. The event leaders mean well — but they create an event that pushes even the intrepid out of the process.

Needed are more ways to learn who these people are, not just where they stand on issues. An event in which the candidates are all gathered together would be a great place for that . . . but now people will have to go to a dozen ice cream socials (there are a lot of candidates and each one has their own events) to find out. But how many will really do that? A civic opportunity has been squandered and the residents are the worse for it.

Civics TQM

[This is a piece from November 13, 2000, originally published in Ethics Newsline, a publication of the Institute for Global Ethics. The original is here. As engagement in politics plummets ever more, and as the 2004 presidential campaigns heat up, it seems to have new relevance. Let me know what you think. –BR]

As we went to bed Tuesday night, many of us felt sure we’d know who had been elected president in the morning. Wednesday night, it seemed clear we’d know more by Thursday’s close of business. Now it looks like the earliest we’ll know anything is November 17, and that’s assuming a best-case scenario. It’s got everyone on edge, and worse: NASDAQ closed Friday down sharply amidst the uncertainty.

It appears that whoever wins the presidency will do so with approximately half of the country grumbling that it was a raw deal. Are we really behaving like a “banana republic,” in the words of Britain’s Daily Mail? Or, as others have said, are we watching the slightly rusty wheels of democracy move forward just as they ought?

This year’s general election has raised tough issues. The questions of whether to allow some citizens to vote again, whether to abolish or fundamentally change the electoral college, and what it means to vote one’s conscience top the list.

Many say that all of the tension surrounding these issues reflects the inadequacy of the candidates between whom we had to choose. Perhaps. But the intensity of the tension also betrays an underlying civic dysfunction. Here in the oldest experiment at self-governance on the globe, we have developed and encouraged an impoverished notion of what constitutes being a citizen.

I used to work at a large company where there was a major shareholder value initiative. We tried to change the corporate culture and encourage employees to make more shareholder value-driven choices in their day-to-day work. One story we told our classes involved the luxury car manufacturers Lexus and Mercedes.

They’re both great cars — both top-quality vehicles, with good reputations. Objectively speaking, they’re roughly equivalent. But at the time (the mid-1990s), the Mercedes cost roughly twice what the Lexus did. Why? Mercedes and Lexus had different manufacturing processes. Mercedes used a traditional approach to quality control: They did the best they could throughout the assembly line, and stationed someone at the end who checked every car thoroughly. If a car was found wanting, back it went. Lexus, on the other hand, had implemented a total quality management (TQM) approach and constantly tried to make each assembly step more efficient and effective. The person at the end of the line, checking final quality, rarely had to send a car back because problems had already been corrected.

But what does this have to do with voting?

Everything. We have been led to believe, by the virtuous as well as the cynical, that there is one day every two years when we must exercise our civic responsibilities: election day. We have developed a popular mythology about voting that has turned it from the sine qua non of civic life into the non plus ultra.

Citizens are so troubled with this year’s results and so mistrustful of the outcome because so many incorrectly see their vote as the only voice they have in the choice of our leaders. The news media, political campaigns, and, ironically, good-government groups have reinforced this narrow view. Focus groups, packaged “messages,” and political news stories that only tell who appears to be ahead according to pollsters, all have helped build these civic blinders. Most disappointing, many well-meaning voter-registration efforts do little to encourage quality citizenship but instead focus on quantity citizenship.

If the only input I have into the future direction of our government comes at the end of the campaign process, in the voting booth, then I am understandably distressed with my choices. I begin to see voting as a way to send a “message” about how I feel about government. But used this way, my vote is a blunt instrument, and not voting seems like a reasonable option. Like the Mercedes quality checker, I choose to send the product back to the scrap heap, when instead I ought to have tried to fix it some time ago.

Imagine we were able to implement TQM in the civic life of the United States. Opinion makers would encourage people to focus on fixing problems early in the process, when it’s first possible to correct — and possibly preempt — them. Instead of telling citizens that their highest — and only — duty is to vote, what if we were to spend a similar amount of energy encouraging citizens to get involved before November? The intense get-out-the-vote efforts by so many nonprofit community groups could become get-out-the-letter-to-the-editor campaigns focused on Labor Day, when there is enough time to influence policy proposals. We could create a new social movement around quality citizenship.

It is tempting to say that such a push is not needed, that people already get involved in ways other than simply voting. But those who do are a small minority. In a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for The People and The Press in January 2000, eight in ten U.S. citizens said they had not attended a city council meeting, contacted any elected official, or joined any organization in support of a cause in the last twelve months. The share of people who had never done those things was about six in ten. There is a great deal of room for all of us to improve.

There can be little doubt that we will, at some point soon, decide who the next president will be, and the wheels of American democracy will not have flown off. But this year ought to be a wake-up call. We cannot afford to squander our trust in democratic institutions. What is needed is a blueprint to implement civic TQM. It is not clear we can afford another election that taxes our trust like this one.