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, September 17, 2013

Entrenched City Halls Defined then Disrupted

In the last blog post, the idea of combining disruption and innovation was suggested as a strategy for implementing New Community Paradigms in communities in which politically controlled bureaucratic government institutions are entrenched.

This post will provide clarification as to what is meant by an entrenched city hall or a politically controlled bureaucratic government institution that is no longer serving the community by reviewing past arguments made over the course of this effort.

The potential push for disruption against an arguably entrenched city hall is based first on the philosophical premise that the democratic basis for the power of governance is based not on the authority of government institutions but on civil society.

The idea of ‘entrenched city hall’ started taking form back in 2011 with Why is this so hard? It's complicated and it's complex but that's OK which promoted the idea of a community creating its own community paradigms despite the complexity of doing so.

There has been an unstated assumption throughout the posts of this blog that ‘City Hall’ has failed to adequately address the need for an economically and environmentally sustainable and livable community. That is obviously not going to be true for all cities and the degree to which it is will be different from city to city. In some cases, the effort will find a willing partner and the collaboration will create a new more expansive form of community governance. In other cases, there will be pushback from the incumbent institutional government. The key issue is whether City Hall truly represents the community as a whole or only special interests or privileged key community members. If it is later, then there are pathways that can be taken to weaken and subsequently disrupt that control in a sustained and innovative manner.

For this to happen requires greater Community Governance - Third Path to City Government, a move away from current entrenched forms of closed city government to more open forms of community-based governance. It also requires recognizing, as did Governance by the Community or Not - Getting with or past City Hall that:

There is a difference though between governance and government. New community paradigms do not assume that people will take turns being the city planner or a city council member for a day. It does work under the premise that the relationships with community leaders and city employees (maybe better would be community-based employees) need to change and become different. How community needs are met and community standards enforced would also likely be different. How to make this work is another challenge for new community paradigms.

The idea is that the community itself makes more of the decisions directly through some system of direct deliberative democracy or a hybrid with the current system rather than indirectly through a mayor and city council system. Support for such an approach will be considered in greater detail in the future but for now, the focus for this post is on the factors involved when Community Governance Takes On City Hall in determining the balance of influence between political leaders, public sector and the community at large. 

The standard argument is the degree to which the process of running communities should be by politicians or by the public sector. This can, however, be a false choice as politicians and the public sector or bureaucrats often come together in a disjointed form of control in which city council members use their political power to force short-term decisions that make poor long-term sense for the community and city management works to protect the political self-interests of the city council members. Even when this is not overtly excessive, it can still significantly define the culture of city hall.

Each component ends up working to support the dysfunction 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. 

The second problem with the standard approach to institutionalized community government is that it can discourage ongoing community participation in city government as A Ladder of Citizen Participation by Sherry R. Arnstein explains.

The usual claims that change can come about through elections every four years have little merit as there may be in reality minimal opportunities for true community participation between elections and elections are always under processes controlled by the status quo power culture. Not necessarily in mechanical terms of voter suppression or such but by the culture already instilled by the daily process of city hall control that results effectively in disenfranchisement. Worse, any successful election of a new slate of officials 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 status quo power system stays in place.

Again, it should be stated that there is no claim that this situation applies to all cities or even in the fullest extent to a substantial number. It does happen though and one of the worst examples has been the City of Bell though on the positive side Bell can also be seen as An Example of Civic Renewal From Broken City.

The City of Bell was an example of what was the worst of local municipal governance with both politicians and top public sector management taking self-serving advantage of the community. Yet, how many California cities looked at the City of Bell with derision when the difference between Bell and those cities is not really one of kind but in truth only a matter of degree. Not that there is any claim that there are numerous city councils or administrations currently breaking the law. Rather, how many city halls adopted policies whether official or not that in the words of newly elected Bell City Council person Ana Maria Quintana, instituted a lack of inclusion by the public in decisions having an impact on the public, whether intentional or through negligence.

This argues that new alternative methods of community transformation need to be developed to change the balance of power in favor of a broad-based community vision and away from entrenched city hall bureaucratic politics when the supposedly democratic process has become corrupted not through blatant illegalities but through the small corruptions of a system turned to protecting itself at all costs and turning away from the real needs of the community.

It should be recognized though that arguing against the existing system is different from arguing for a system proposed to replace it. That will still continue to be needed to be done in future posts. There are though additional challenges beyond getting past an entrenched city hall.

This blog has advocated for ‘radical’ community engagement and through it the far greater inclusion of Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations.

This has its own set of challenges:

This brings up the at first seemingly unattainable chasm created arguably as a symptom of the current system of local political and economic power. Most people are not involved enough in their communities to make the necessary changes. Many currently have zero involvement because they have been turned off by the current system of power which becomes all the more entrenched because people are not involved. This is a matter of learned helplessness which can be unlearned.

Others continue to try to make changes but are locked out by the current benefactors of politics occupying city hall which often has the appearance of a democratic system but the culture of entrenched power.

In future articles, it will be asserted that this is not as unattainable as may be seemingly apparent. While members of a community may have different degrees of involvement in their community, it is still possible to organize to generate the necessary community will for change.

Finally, many city halls constituted under the current form of local government structure are becoming increasingly unable to adequately address the ‘wicked problems’ facing our communities because it means adopting a complex approach to finding solutions as opposed to the more traditional, complicated, machine-based approach as was argued in Complexity as Cradle for Creativity and Innovation.

Public Sector organizations though, particularly at a local level, are often not able to do this as well. Instead, reacting to protect their status they end up imposing unseen additional layers of complicated or closed processes that are essentially subconscious from an organizational perspective that in time become culturally implicit. It is a means of maintaining power by becoming entrenched as a system both operationally and culturally. This is why so many local city halls or other public sector organizations prefer the more traditional organization as machine approach in which complexity is seen as chaos and why community engagement in some communities remains stuck at the bottom rungs of Arnstein’s Ladder.

Past Posts