The SanityPrompt

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Monday, August 29, 2005

A New Liberalism

I am becoming more and more intrigued with the ideas of participatory democracy the more I think about the current political process and how we might find our way out of the civic mess we are in. I confess I have never given much attention to scholarship on deliberative democracy and the public participation movements. Friends and colleagues have certainly fallen in love but I have always been a bit of a skeptic. Perhaps as we get more cynical we also get more hopeful. Or we turn to those things we used to not believe in for some hope. And perhaps participatory democracy is just that right now. I came across the following essay by Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N Kari of the University of Minnesota's Center for Democracy and Citizenship (a group of the same name is currently based in DC and headed by former Colorado Rep David Skaggs). They criticize the contemporary depiction of FDR and contrast this with the public art created by the New Deal in an essay published in the Wall Street Journal. That in and of itself might raise an eyebrow. But here's an anecdote that presents the gist of their argument:

Here and there, public leaders are articulating a commonwealth approach that begins to accomplish this task. For example, Elizabeth Kautz, the mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota, ran her election campaign on a slogan that confounded the opposition: "Government doesn't have to be bad!"

"All of us together need to create a citizenry who is empowered to do the work of the public," she explains. "Government can help. It can be a catalyst. As mayor, I can work with people. But in an era of limited resources and great challenges, I can't pretend to fix things anymore, and neither can anybody in government."

A few years ago, a group of teenage skateboarders repeatedly got in trouble for skating downtown and in school buildings. Kautz asked them what could be done to change their behavior. "If you get us a skateboard park, we'll stop skating where we're not supposed to," they replied. To which Kautz replied: "I'm not going to 'get' anything for you -- that's not how I see my job. I will work with you to open some doors. But you're going to have to organize the community yourselves." Working with several adults, the teenagers negotiated agreements with neighborhoods, city agencies, businesses, and insurance companies. They raised money, developed a design and slowly gained support from the city. After a year, the city council reversed its initial opposition to the idea of the park and voted unanimously to support the teenagers' plan. Construction begins this summer.

The skateboarders' story had an enormous catalytic effect. Now, there are many other examples of citizens doing public work in Burnsville. They are helping create a downtown open area called "the heart of the city," with public art, walkways, and bike paths connecting businesses and community buildings. Another group of teenagers is developing alternative uses for a city-owned maintenance building. A parkway planning process has brought together business, senior citizens and youth. In Kautz's mind, it all amounts to "renewing citizenship."

All of this activity hinged on a fundamental redefinition of government. "We've had to get beyond customer service, so that public outcomes are widely owned by the citizens," explains Kautz. City Manager Greg Konat elaborates. "Moving beyond the customer service model has meant that we had to recognize we can't do all the public tasks in government, even if we'd like to. Rather than just provide services, we've redefined our overall objectives as helping to build community."

"Government has certain clear roles, like providing police protection and removing garbage," Konat continues. "But there are other things people expected us to do in the past that
we've had to think differently about. For instance, when we work with neighborhoods, we talk about the idea of a 'community of abundance,’ with many untapped civic talents. People can do most of the work better than government can. We say, 'here's what we can bring to the work; what can you bring?’"


Boyte and Kari criticize the depiction of liberalism as a government that delivers help to people, arguing that this robs people of their civic selves, turning them into clients, customers, or passive charity recipients. But their message isn't the Far Right-wing delusion that government can do nothing and is best kept on a starvation diet. Rather, they see as essential the need to make sure citizens take an active role in both discussing the issues that face them and playing an active role in helping to address these challenges. They reject the approach of Osborne and Gabler's Reinventing Government -- which they pooh-pooh for its client orientation whicagainan denudes the citizen of his civic self. Nor are they urging a rebuilding of social capital by people who foist on themselves and small nonprofits the major social issues of the day. Rather, they want to merge a civic discourse about social ills within a civic framework which expects people to play a role in crafting social responses and even delivering social solutions if appropriate.

Interesting stuff.

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