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.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Need to Stop Sucking at Community Engagement

Over the course of this effort to create new community paradigms the discussion has often been focused on community governance meaning full involvement of the community in its own governance.  This is a substantial change from what is now the norm.  

However, despite providing organizational and information resources regarding community governance there is still a large gap missing in understanding this deeply enough to be able to think of it as a paradigm change.  When speaking of community governance, the main focus has been on the governance and the nature of community has just been assumed.  We need to take a deeper look at community itself and how it engages to see how that affects how new community paradigms will be initiated. For me this meant stepping outside my former professional comfort zone and exploring the world from a different perspective so I have been participating as a novice outsider in various group discussions at the LinkedIn Group Community Engagement.  This has provided a wide field of multiple perspectives from a variety of experienced practitioners.  Interestingly, the most engaging seem to come from across the Atlantic in the British Isles appearing to ahead of us in this aspect. I don’t know whether they are simply more advanced in these matters or have greater challenges forcing them to do so.

As a former economic development professional, I saw many instances where community engagement was seen as being more ‘required but not necessary’. The purpose of public hearings was very often getting the ‘buy in’ for a particular project rather than a desire for actual community engagement. 

This ‘engaging’ of the community by City Hall often had as its goal something beneficial to City Hall or those closely connected to it, but those in control also, in many instances, sincerely saw it as beneficial to the whole community even if they thought that sometimes the community wasn’t smart enough to know it.  Invariably though, these City Hall buy ins were seen as being of more importance than enhancing the capacity for engagement by the community.  

This is not to blame anybody in particular at any City Hall.  While there may be some who egregiously misused their power to disengage the community, this is in large part a systems problem.  We, the people with the luck to have enough resources so that we can help those in our own or other communities, have just not been that great at community engagement in any aspect. The general failure of community engagement by City Hall could be seen as a matter of motivation, if real engagement only has to occur every four years then limiting it to just enough for appearances, whether or not consciously, makes sense in a perverse way.  

There are also numerous examples of inadequate community engagement by outside organizations which supposedly do have the proper motivation.  Non-profits and other positive change-agent organizations come from the outside to impose solutions that were supposedly seen as highly desirable by the communities they served but ended up having an impact that was a less than appreciable long term on those communities when those outside organizations left. This angle on missteps in community engagement is addressed in this TED video by Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! 

The focus through new community paradigms though is on self-reflective community engagement, arising from the community itself through an organic or grassroots approach. In examining community engagement arising in or emerging from the community itself, we need to start with an underlying concept of Civil Society which exists prior to government and nonprofit intervention.  The main source cited in the past has been the Centre for Civil Society, a social innovation and public policy institute for the empowerment of ordinary people and strengthening of civil society in Australia, particularly in the posts Civil society as a platform for new community paradigms and Community paradigms as a set of community relations.

Civil society can be seen as the source or connecting glue of good neighbors among ordinary people, coming from the heart of the community, often cited by those invested in community engagement by formally volunteering or professionally managing specific external programs.  Sometimes this type of organic engagement can work through City Hall and sometimes it can work through other avenues. Sometimes though these social connections break down or are strained and made to wither away.  Then explicit efforts at community engagement may be needed which at times can be addressed internally or organically by the community itself, but at other times require a helping hand. 

The challenge is that organic or grassroots community engagement can be difficult to make emergent within a community, particularly in a sustainable manner. The ways or potential processes may exist but the means or necessary resources required to bring them together and then subsequently work to achieve specific ends may require external organizational resources. 

The difficulty is not only a matter of internal creation but also a matter of overcoming any external forces that may be working against the process.  All too often roadblocks are put up by the same institutions that were practicing just enough faux community engagement to get ‘buy in’ but not enough to achieve true community empowerment. 

Before going further, a difference between community engagement and civic engagement needs to be established, at least as used here.  Community engagement refers to engagement by the community with itself or the institutions with which it interacts with or through, or other outside forces.  Civic engagement refers to the actual interaction of the community engaging with government institutions.  The goal is to enhance the level of community engagement to empower the community, working at the grassroots, neighborhood level of civil society, to have the locus of control when engaging on civic matters with local or other government institutions.  This means that people being engaged in their local community but not interacting with City Hall is community not civic engagement or participation. 

One new source for basic questions regarding community engagement is Graeme Stuart who writes the Sustainable Community Engagement blog.  His blog has been added to the “Recently Updated Community Building Blogs” under the right hand column.  It has been his questions raised in the LinkedIn Community Engagement Group that have been the source of my latest contemplations.  Graeme has a multiple perspectives approach, looking at both Vertical and horizontal community engagement, vertical referring to interactions between the community and separate, local government or outside organizations and horizontal referring to interactions between community members. 

Community engagement is sometimes primarily vertical, as with consultation by a government department or attendance at a public hearing and sometimes primarily horizontal, such as good neighbors organizing a street party.  While it is sometimes it is a mix of both such as with service clubs or a tenant management organization, it needs to be combined or synthesized better to make it more effective.  

Beyond being able to provide a forum for effective engagement and a platform for community governance, It would also likely require the provision for other avenues of interaction such as community dialogue and direct deliberative democracy, which has been discussed in the past or new ways of addressing common challenges such as systems thinking, which has been discussed in the last post and will be considered more in the future.

This convincingly asserts that we need not only look at community engagement vertically and horizontally, but externally and internally, holistically and at the individual level.  It would require another choice along with standard government institutions or advocacy groups.

A new type of community organization could be created that promotes the idea that "Community engagement has come to the fore as a policy and programme approach that seeks to connect citizens both with each other and with government" as Graeme has suggested in quoting Ryan, Head, Keast, & Brown (2006) in "Engaging Indigenous Communities"(pdf),  This could help to move away from the idea that community engagement only involves organizations whether external or internal.  It could assist in providing a community with an “approach that seeks to connect citizens both with each other and with government".  This approach means creating unity in people, communicating with people you live with, and listening actively to achieve what engagement should be all about.

As a vision of full community engagement, this involves, as one CE professional put it, "Ordinary people coming together to deliberate and take action collectively on public problems or issues that they themselves have defined as important and in ways they have decided are appropriate."  Great when it actually happens naturally, but that is often not the case.  Helping to ensure that it does is a goal of new community paradigms. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Systems Thinking as a disciplined process for Community Governance

Throughout this effort to establish new community paradigms, the case has been made for greater direct community governance as opposed to the standard representative institutional form of governance, i.e. City Council/City Manager, one typically finds. This means enhancing community empowerment beyond city hall and establishing a form of governance that is not only of, for and by the people but that works through the people. Community governance is seen as arising not through the permission of institutions but through the set of community relations making up civil society.  It should also consider what mechanisms are required to ensure community prosperity is enhanced through governance by the community.  

It still needs to be demonstrated how this is to be fully established. It requires breaking the hold of the existing institutions of local community government and engaging the community to establish viable systems of direct democratic community governance.  

It also means devising a system of addressing complex challenges facing a community which fully uses all the resources of that community in coming up with innovative, sustainable solutions and avoiding unintended detrimental consequences. Simply putting the community in power is not enough to ensure the effective establishment of new community paradigms.

Fortunately, a community-based system of direct deliberative governance is by its nature a more collaborative system than the usual city council form of a government institution.  Standard local government institutions are, as are many of our institutions, based on adversarial competition.  For local communities, this means elections in which candidates oppose each other and this adversarial relationship is often continued in day-to-day governance until the next election. Groups or cliques form around candidates and too often energy is spent in trying to stop the opposition rather than coming up with solutions more beneficial to all.  

The argument has been made elsewhere to how institutional local government, ostensibly seen as expressions of the democratic will of a community, are examples of entrenched political power serving only the interests of the few.  Even when there is some attempt to work together it is very difficult to get a clear picture of what the challenges actually are because information must too often go through a maze of supposed expertise created by staff professionals in support of the politically self-interested prism of city council members.  

The personal or political preferences of individual city council members or the council as a whole take precedences over what may be a different perspective by a majority of the community.  The community, to the extent that it hasn’t become disengaged, is often given limited and slanted information then being persuaded to take sides too often based on emotional likes or dislikes created through unsubstantial but persuasive arguments rather than reason. Community members become cheerleading spectators in the political process rather than truly empowered participants.

What though if a method or means could be established by which the community collaboratively dealt with decisions of resource allocation in a more objective manner?  Instead of first choosing sides then having that side put forward an idea to compete with an opposing side, the community used one of the forums available through the Governance Through Community wiki-page and then defined the challenge together so that all perspectives were considered.  

This does not mean that there would always have to be agreement, only that other perspectives would have to be considered up front.  The objective would not be to beat the competition but to make sure that a complete model of the challenge was created so that all aspects were thoroughly addressed.  

One means of doing this is establishing a Systems Thinking approach to community governance.  A wiki-page, Systems Thinking Approaches, has been created to explore this area further under the wiki-section Community Management and Technology.  

In addition, insights learned from a system thinking related course on Model Thinking from the University of Michigan taught by Professor Scott E. Page through Coursea will be applied. 

According to Professor Scott, models are important because they help us to be Intelligent Citizens of the World being able to not only recognize relevant factors but when those factors do and do not apply.  System Thinking Models are successfully used in economics, biology, sociology, political science, linguistics, law and game theory. 

Professor Page makes a strong argument throughout the course for the usefulness of models in addressing challenges facing us as individuals and as community members.  One benefit is that models, properly used, can help communities to reason, decide, strategize and design different approaches to community challenges.  They can serve as decision aids, provide comparative statistics and counterfactuals, help create experimental designs and help convert those experimental designs into institutional designs. Finally, they can assist in choosing among multiple policies and the institutional means of implementing those policies.  

That is if they are used properly.  Institutional forms of city government often use models put forward by professional staff and consultants.  The problem is that they too often pick and choose the methodology to come up with the politically desired answer and discourage further questioning or debate by giving the proposed strategy a veneer of approval through supposed expertise.  Not that staff professionals and consultants don’t know what they are doing, it is that they often do not use their expertise to its fullest extent because of imposed self-serving limitations set by city councils and city management. Nor does this mean that this is always done explicitly, in many instances a long-term process of enculturation takes place by which it becomes the way things have always been done without question.

A good model not only endeavors to predict points or outcomes but also to produce bounds or ranges of outcomes.  It can seek to test itself through retrodiction by looking at past results to see if they fit a particular model.  It can be used to predict other related issues and help define or inform future Data Collection.  Proper use of models also makes it possible to calibrate for better measurement in the future and to estimate hidden parameters.

This means, however, taking a radically different approach to problem-solving than what is often found in city halls.  It requires participants in this process to be clear, reasonable thinkers rather than getting their way by being the most likable or loudest.  Professor Scott puts forward a process, similar to that put forward by other resources found at Systems Thinking Approaches, to achieve this.  
  1. Name The Parts
  2. Identify Relationships
  3. Work Through Logic
  4. Inductively Explore
  5. Understand Class of Outcome
Rather than being based on persuasion which is then subsequently supported by selected data, System Thinking Models start with the goal to understand through reason, using data then seeking to understand patterns found in that data. This is where professional staff and consultants could be of assistance, in working directly with the community, through the facilitation of this process. 

What is more important is that we are more successful in coming up with answers to problems when we use models than we are when we address them on our own. Phil Tetlock demonstrated that people who use models, particularly formal models, or use multiple models and perspectives (foxes) were better in making predictions than those using single models or perspectives (hedgehogs) or no models (Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs). The logic of modeling can often help to show us where our intuition fails us. 

This may all sound great (then again it may be so different to what we are used to that it still requires further means of convincing) but there are still inherent challenges to convincing others of implementing such a system.  First is a basic truth of thinking with models put forward by George E. P. Box that, "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”  This requires being able to handle some degree of ambiguity but it can remain far too easy to be persuaded by voices professing to be absolutely certain that they are right.  

Another issue is the nature of outcomes.  The challenge that the increasing complexity of the world poses to our institutions has been discussed before.  People are more comfortable with a system that creates outcomes that have seemingly obtained some form of equilibrium or are cyclic in nature but have a far harder time dealing with issues or outcomes that are random or complex in nature.  This makes this endeavor a necessary but extremely complex undertaking.  Political persuasion would still exist and community leaders would still be needed but this would fundamentally change the relationships of governance within a community between the community with professional staff and consultants, between the community and its leaders, and between the community and its members.  

Related Past Blog Posts

Community Empowerment

Systems Thinking


Past Posts