In exploring the relationship of the individual citizen to the idealistic future state of local government compared to the grittier, practical reality of today, we have to be careful how we characterize that relationship. In most cases, when speaking of a potentially improved future or some example of bureaucratic wrongdoing, we are speaking in abstract terms. This is by necessity because we want to find principles that we can apply to the degree we see appropriate across a broad range of circumstances.It is not necessary under new community paradigms to eliminate city councils, only to significantly change how they work and their relationship with the community by giving far more power to the community itself.
In his article “Manhattan Moment: Only politicians can save us now”, Stephen D. Eide wrote on the good intentions gone bad of Early 20th century Progressive reformers (who) designed council-manager government to be good government. To the Progressives, good government required the separation of politics and administration -- a concept central to their strategy to wrest control of city government from the urban machines, whose patronage empires had bred political corruption and incompetent administration.
This claim for a third path for community governance requires more support. How did Nineteenth Century progressives fail to create a new system of city government based on the separation of politics and administration that resulted in the problems of current forms of city government, whether run by city manager or city mayor? What is different from Nineteenth Century progressives so that Twenty-first Century progressives can today successfully create a system of open city government to replace the current systems?
The problem is that politics and administration did not stay separated from each other but combined into a too often dysfunctional, yet still stable relationship, becoming more intertwined together and more separated from the community itself. Communities as a result often became discouraged or disenfranchised from participation or adopted dysfunctional processes to attain at least minimal benefits, keeping the existing culture of power in place. This idea will be expanded upon in future posts but for now a summation of the problem will have to suffice.
Many small, local, community governments have been functioning under a disjointed control through political influence, usually by city council, combined with professional management by city managers and administrative staff. Disjointed because city council members can use their political power to force decisions that make poor management sense and city managers will work to protect the political self-interests of city council members.
Each component ends up working to support the disfunction of the other to maintain its own survival and the entire system becomes more closed . This does not always happen, perhaps not even as often or as significantly as my experience leads me to believe but when it does, it creates a culture of entrenched institutional government control and despite appearances to the contrary discourages community participation.
Lack of community participation in city government has a great deal to do with the process of city government itself which has over the decades discouraged many with the so-called truism that you can’t fight city hall as a result of abuses cited under A Ladder of Citizen Participation by Sherry R. Arnstein.
The usual claims that change can come about through elections have little merit in such cases as there are in reality minimal opportunities for true community participation and always under processes controlled by the status quo power culture. Worse, any successful election of a new slate often times only changes the players not the game. There may be superficial changes in policy when one political clique replaces another but it swings back a few years later and the deeper culture of the existing power status quo stays in place.
This is why new community paradigms are required to bring about significant change in many of our communities.
What changed significantly for Twenty-first Century Progressives, as compared to Nineteenth Century Progressives, is the communities with which they work and the tools for community change available to them. Nineteenth Century progressives saw the role of public administrators as protecting the interests of an often times uneducated marginalized, and unengaged public against machines such as Tammany Hall. Many in government today still do if with new players.
Twenty-first Century progressives are more likely today to have access to the internal social resources of a community through social media networking platforms. This provides the means to not only create and develop systems of community governance but also the ability to provide community building tools to those who have been discouraged or disenfranchised. What is more important, it does not have to occur only every four years. There can be real time participation and ongoing engagement in community affairs.
One organization taking major steps in making this a reality is Code for America | A New Kind of Public Service.
Code for America enlists the talent of the web industry into public service to use their skills to solve core problems facing our communities. We help passionate technologists leverage the power of the internet to make governments more open and efficient, and become civic leaders able to realize transformational change with technology.What is important is that the means or tools provided by Code for America are independent of any specific institution or organization. This prevents their overall development from being restricted by political self-interest or unnecessarily restrictive bureaucratic management control. These tools are available to city councils, city management or directly to the community itself. There is still, however, the issue of having these resources used within the communities they are intended to benefit. Many communities will adopted them but only to the extent allowed by city councils and city management and not necessarily to the extend that would actually be supported by the community.
Civic technology experts have recognized the benefits of sharing technology among governments and institutions. However, instances of successful collaboration and sharing are still few and far between, in part because there is no easy, structured way to share knowledge about this software, let alone the software itself. There is no one place to go to look for civic software that cities need, and no roadmap to share what they have.The solution to this problem as put forward by Code for America | A New Kind of Public Service will be dealt with more fully in the next post.