This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Still Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations? Look outside City Hall.

The last post was based on an article by Della Rucker of Wise, titled Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them.  In the article, she develops the argument that [P}eople who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems…will NOT be experts in their fields.”  

Della believes that “we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities. We call them the Public. They know stuff. They’ve done stuff.”

This provided an opportunity to discuss Charles Leadbeater’s concept of pro-amateurs as well as touch upon the concepts of discontinuous innovation and disruptive innovation.  

From a community engagement perspective what was cited were the challenges of implementation in the current political environment of too many city halls using  Sherry R. Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.  This work was referenced previously in Governance by the Community or Not - Getting with or past City Hall post.  That particular post did not deal with economic development directly, rather it made the case for an ideal future of direct deliberative governance of the community and by the community.  That is not the case here.  

The interaction of the public or members of the community in this scenario may more often require the resources found under the People’s Governance (wiki page) of the New Community Paradigms wiki, which offers resources for direct democratic participation but more often in opposition to an unresponsive institutional government power. 

The ‘public’, cited by Della, is not an extension of city hall or the studio audience for city council meetings.  This public or the community is more properly classified under civil society which can be understood, as can community paradigms, as a set of community relations.  Charles Leadbeater’s pro-amateurs are also at home within this concept of civil society as opposed to professionals which are more a product of institutions.  Both though are needed and the relationship between these two perspectives needs to change from disengaged and even adversarial to open and engaged.  What should be recognized is that there is a difference between governance and government and that the role of government to take on the function of governance arises from civil society.

Even after eliminating any hurdles to democratic participation in economic development issues there are still two challenges that need to be faced.  The first may seem to go against the theory of full democratic participation.  It recognizes though that there is not a clear line occupied by the pro-amateurs sought by Della between what should be done, as decided by the public and how it should be done, as decided by the professionals.  The challenge is accessing not only the pro-amateurs but those best suited to the task.  Trying to do this through a specifically focused selection process is fraught with pitfalls. 

As was pointed out in the previous blog post (and in LinkedIn discussions - I won’t be using anybody’s name in respect of their privacy except for Della)  “large gatherings of laypeople gives more the illusion of participation as no one's given much time to talk or expand on their point beyond a sound-byte's length” the result is being able to predict most non-expert content in advance of the meeting.  In other words, we failed, as a community, to find the means of including those in the public best suited for the job. 

The second challenge is in actually achieving any of the lofty goals set by this process. Staff is made responsible for realizing the goals established in these city sponsored studies or strategic plans.  Otis White of Civic Strategies, explains in his article Why the Goals of Citizen Engagement Are Not What You Think why it is that public meetings often fail to bring about the results desired. 

I know local government officials well enough to know some of their secrets. And here’s one: Many don’t really believe in citizen engagement. Or, if they do believe in it, they don’t think it actually works.”

In the article, he explains more fully why and he should be heeded because he, like Della, has worked to advance greater involvement and empowerment by the public in economic development.

One of his past creations was the Map of Community Change series on community transformation.  The map of community changeprovides a process of community engagement consisting of three phases - Discussion, Planning and Decision.

Which means that it not only focuses on the democratic creation of economic development policy but it also looks toward implementation to achieve a successful outcome.  Beyond allowing everyone to have their say, the process still has to really accomplish creating jobs and generating revenue for the community.  It may seem to be at cross purposes, it is though an unavoidable responsibility if we are to fully realize the potential of our communities. 

In the Map of Community Change series he explains:

“The better way: Begin talking with citizens before plans are drafted, perhaps even before problems are identified. By doing so, you’ll get a calmer dialogue and a much better sense of interests and desires. (I’ll talk about how to do this in a future posting.) And keep citizens involved at every step in the planning stage. Here is the key concept: Citizen engagement is not an event (a town-hall meeting, a public forum, or a “My City 101” class, and certainly not a public hearing or public-comment period); it is a process.”

Based on the nature of most local government public meetings, who does get tied into are frustrated citizens who end up mistaking as one economic development professional put it, “symptoms for causes, anomalies for patterns, cycles for one-time events.”

Who is not reached are the disengaged of the community, at least those disengaged from city hall and civic discourse.  These so-called “Disengaged people in the community are often especially rich with insights as to what could be done, why many things haven't worked that should have, and often what the noisy elite in the community are ignoring,..”  They are, in truth, often deeply engaged within the life of the community existing outside of city hall. “The deeply engaged people in the community also have all kinds of ideas, see a lot of potential that they're often actively developing, and notice what resources and people are missing (implementation puts that in much sharper relief.)“

Some see another challenge in that communities arguably include a middle group, within the population, who are seemingly completely self-absorbed and have little passion or interest about anything that isn't very, very obviously to their personal benefit or detriment...the folks who complain about shopping and dining, lack of health care professionals, home prices, lack of entertainment they can passively consume or costly facilities for their hobby of the moment, taxes in general, etc.“

Della, to her credit, is not ready to write off this segment of the population as having no thoughts beyond their own self-interest.  “I think folks of that type are definitely out there, but I think it's a much smaller proportion who truly cannot or will not get past that.” 

This raises the question then as to different levels of community involvement and community engagement.  Through this effort, I have discerned three levels of community involvement.  

The first, to which many of this middle group likely belong, is community attachment as defined by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup Soul of the Community project that sought to determine what attaches people to their communities

While this level may not get people to city hall meetings, the project did demonstrate a strong correlation with economic prosperity.  However, as a previous post, Finding the soul of your community and the reason to create your own community paradigms, stated:

“Good economics and finance are essential to the sustainability of a city but they are not the soul of the community and do not make up all of that community's wealth.  Neither was the leadership of city hall.  This was demonstrated in the one Southern California city included in Knight Soul of the Community Study - Long Beach, California..” 

Ratings of the local economy increased in 2010; however, the economy is still not a key factor emotionally connecting residents to their communities. Perception of local leadership is rated lower in 2010, but it is not a key driver in attaching residents to Long Beach.

This means that while this group may be the hardest to reach, they cannot be ignored. If  nobody has a reason to be attached to your community, then you are already fighting a losing battle. If they are attached but uninvolved, then you better understand how and why so that you don’t do something to loose them completely. 

The second level is community participation which can be anything from attending community fairs to serving on various city council appointed commissions.  This group does attend city hall meetings but is often in the group of so-called experts that are as much or more a part of the problem as they are any possible solution or are enmeshed well enough into the system that any opposition they raise to the status quo can be easily diverted. They are also the ones most likely to be recruited in to taking a new approach to community building and economic development empowerment.

The final level is true community engagement. These are community members engaging at the level of Citizen Control, envisioned by Arnstein, at which they are truly involved and empowered.  Find the means to access the knowledge and experience of the pro-amateurs within the community and empower the community to fully realize that potential and you have a formidable economic development engine. 

Past Posts