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.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Active Digital Citizens Seeking New Community Paradigms pt. 3

Having  now covered weeks one, two and three, the fourth week of the course, The Active Citizen in a Digital Age took a look at volunteering and donating but the focus will be on another concept raised in the material, social capital. There’s a need to differentiate, nuanced though it may be, between the NCP perspective on Civil Society and the Active Digital Citizen Perspective. 

NCP does not see Civil Society as an “institutional manifestation of our basic human rights to peaceable assembly, free expression and, privacy,” but rather as the Australian Centre for Civil Society does as “the relationships and associations that make up our life at grassroots levels of society, in families, neighbourhoods and voluntary associations, independent of both government and the commercial world”. The difference is the level of dependence on institutions not the exclusion of them. Civil Society is the basis for Community Governance in that it recognizes that the right of the community to govern arises from the community itself through civic interactions and is not bestowed by any governmental institution.  As proposed by Laurence Demarco,  The difference between Civil and Civic, Civic refers to the 'local state' — “where citizens participate in local health boards, schools, community councils, planning partnerships and all the other mechanisms ultimately under the direction of the state.”  Civil society means voluntary actions undertaken by citizens, not under the direction of any authority wielding the power of the state which has a tendency to encroach. A similar perspective is presented by Larry Diamond, What Civil Society Can Do to Develop Democracy.

This arguably places civic society between civil society and the political sector of democracy with the institutions spoken of by the Active Digital Citizen being institutional touch points between the community and government power.  The human touch points are volunteers.

Although the course warned of dangers with digital interactions and democracy, one organization seen as utilizing technology very effectively is VolunteerMatch. Greg Baldwin, the President of VolunteerMatch talked about utilizing technology to make the world a better place and how technology has changed volunteering for the better.

The NCP wiki page Voluntary Participation and the related NCP Kumu map, which provides a non-hierarchal graphic representation of the wiki, places Voluntary Participation  as a bridge between Civil Society and Governance.  Another bridge from Civil Society to Governance is Data Journalism and Community Information to help the community keep an eye on the government institutions. Both would arguably be needed to ensure the independence of Civil Society sought by Active Digital Citizen and others. 

The course cites Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community in which he argues the breakdown of “social capital” because of pressure on time and money, the disintegration of the family unit, media, television, and generational change resulting in the  diminishment of networks of trust and reciprocity that these connections advanced. A sharp decline in neighborhood bowling leagues leading to many more people bowling alone being the illuminating example. 

Putnam’s book was previously included but not cited as part of the Collective Impact Living Cities Kumu project as an extension of How Can We Recapture the Spirit of Community Engagement that Built America?, Kumu map of a Living Cities blog post of the same title

The concept of social capital, according to Putnam, depends on people believing that if: “I’ll do this for you, without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.

From very early on with a Second look at Making Cities Work, social capital has meant creating an environment from which there was more from which draw to bring about new community paradigms. This would require a good deal of volunteering from members of the community, as participants actively pursuing their role as the producers of democracy.  Volunteering is not limited though to formal volunteering in a community but all forms of altruistic social interaction. Volunteering at its best is a face to face proposition which means creating social connections within a community, helping to increase the democratic participation being sought. 

Building 'Social Capital' within a  community through community engagement can be seen as the planning process of building both 'Bonding' and 'Bridging'.  One metric whether community engagement has been successful or not is the extent to which the process has helped the community to build social capital, making the community stronger and more connected.  

"Social Capital" can, however, be seen by some as being part of a technical discourse with which the majority of people are not engaged, making it a more useful term when examining community engagement from an exclusively systems perspective. 

The organic based direction a community takes can be diverted by institutions attempting to fulfill what they see as their institutional mission.  Even when well intentioned, professionals whether directly involved in community engagement or more likely indirectly as part of some other function, say economic development, often lack a true understanding or appreciation of what community engagement as a means of building real community capacity is about. Instead of talking about community engagement what should be talked about is an engaged community.

Even if one starts with the right motivations and frame of reference, it is still difficult to work with a community that is disengaged or disenfranchised or with a group that lacks sufficient social capital in the larger community.  This can arguably be widely applicable as many if not most people in any large community feel disengaged, as social capital is only generated where people are actively engaged.  The individual then rather than the organization becomes the most basic component of community engagement.

Stuart Graeme promoted Colin Williams’ ideas of individual community engagement, "Fostering community engagement and tackling undeclared work"  consisting of "spending time, engaged in unpaid activity, doing something that aims to benefit someone (individuals or groups) other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment."  

This doesn’t have to happen through organizations but could arise more like a "good neighbor" concept.  Graeme also seemed  to suggest that these 'good neighbors' could be the ones to start in engaging with the community to build the connectedness comprising the Bonding' and 'Bridging' of 'Social Capital.'  It would be based, in my view upon the existence of what has been labeled ‘Civil Society, particularly when thinking of community paradigms as a set of community relations. The connection with Civil Society is made stronger yet in Community paradigms as a set of community relations.

Only later was a connection realized with Asset Based Community Development through ABCD, Social Networks and the Commons connecting Associational Life which looked at evaluating communities on an Asset Based Community Development basis, as a whole, in terms of social capital bonding (connecting neighborhood residents together) and bridging (connecting volunteers from outside the community with residents, or presumably, the community with other communities within a common jurisdiction). 

In a more recent post connected with this course Establishing a Foundation for Democratic Belief, I argued that Brennan was right as he said to have previously written that participation can be meaningful even when its practical effect is nil, because of the social bonding it creates. He assumed though that no comparable duty existed to take part specifically in voting, because other kinds of good actions can take the place of voting, believing that voting is part of what is termed a larger market in civic virtue. Those other components cannot though make up by themselves for the loss of voting from the total civic virtue or social capital created with the inclusion of voting. The overall capacity of civic virtue or social capital is diminished for the sake of administrative efficiency.

The assignment for week four included one question which was:
Give two to three reasons why you think volunteering is important/effective

Volunteering through civil society is important to a community because the political institutions and market institutions cannot be expected to be able or to be trusted to fulfill all the needs of the community, especially in addressing Wicked Problems. Our challenges are increasingly complex. Our responses to these challenges cannot be merely simplistic but need to be coherently complex. From a systems perspective, we need to focus not only on what Chris Argyris called Single Loop Learning but Double Loop Learning as well. 

I will finish up with Zeynep Tufekci: Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win but in the next post as it deserves its own podium. 

Active Digital Citizens Seeking New Community Paradigms pt. 2

Continuing from the last post, the third week of  The Active Citizen in a Digital Age course dealt first with why digital matters to democracy in two parts, the first on the nature of digital data itself and the nature of networks arising from the interaction of that data. We create a tremendous amount of digital data in our every day, the vast majority having nothing to do with our ideas of democracy. Fundamentally different and in addition to other types of physical based resources we need to be concerned with in engaging as active citizens, digital is still concerned with how are we going to use our time and money? Digital data is the instructor informs us, a non-rival and non-excludable good unlike the other two. “Basically that means that lots of people can use it at once and it's hard to keep others from using it.” 
The nature of the network, exchanging digital data over networks, mobile, wireless spectrum, cable or broadband, is made up of physical structures. One important feature being the vast quantity of information that can now be stored. Every digital action gets recorded and stored and that storage keeps growing, not necessarily accessible, intentionally or not but it does keep growing. There are entities, usually market-based companies involved with maintaining this digital infrastructure making such exchanges happen from app and software developers to equipment builders, to network providers creating access to the creators of digital products we are interacting with, be it social media companies or search engines. 

All of our mutual digital transactions also involve a third party, intermediary infrastructure providers. This matters because all of the data representing the information we are exchanging (information turned into 1s and 0s) is stored on their servers. The nature of digital means that there is a difference between what gets remembered, what gets shared, and what will last when action is taken in either the digital space or the analog space.  
More information and insight on this topic is available through the Digital Impact Toolkit from the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society which supports the ethical, safe, and effective use of digital data by civil society organizations.
The course recognizes in the second part of the lesson that the two components of the first part lead to the dangers of going digital. In part because digital democracy plays by a different set of rules than does analog democracy. How we participate in civil society is influenced, impacted, and defined based on the nature of both digital data and its network infrastructure.
The problem is that digital infrastructure is built by companies, usually for-profit and is monitored by governments. Therefore there is no individual, private space in the digital world so there is no real civil society in digital space. According to the course though, civil society needs to function as an independent space separate from markets and governments.

“Civil society is an institutional manifestation of our basic human rights to peaceable assembly, free expression and, privacy.”

Lucy Bernholz, Senior Research Scholar, Stanford University, PACS
Director, Digital Civil Society Lab (and course instructor) wrote her own perspective on this issue. She produces the Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint (2016), an annual industry forecast about the ways we use private resources for public benefit. Particular interest should be paid to pages 20 to 23. 

“Yes, we can use digital tools to expand free expression and assembly; yes, these tools can be used to expand the voices we hear and participation by many. But civil society actors - in the US specifically - are fooling themselves if they think that digital tools are innately and always democratizing.”

She points out that civil society actors - in the US this means nonprofits and foundations as well as social movements, protestors, and activists - must protect the right and capacity to organize online, to express oneself and assemble peaceably outside of government or corporate control in digital spaces, if we are to maintain that right and capacity offline.

The digital rights agenda is civil society's agenda.

The challenge then is how to reclaim and protect this loss of civil society? There are apps that are designed to protect privacy by encrypting communications for example. There still remains though the essential real world on-the-ground (analog world) steps of finding allies, working together, crafting a strategy and message which requires having a private space to come together. 

Open Society Foundations United States, an organization which works to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people, video  Shrinking Civic Spaces discusses how and why governments across the world are shutting down spaces for civic engagement and how civil society can unite to prevent it.

"Solidarity between the online blogger and the gay rights activist, between the NGO that's getting shut down and the social movement that's turning out on the streets. Because although those actors might look and think that they're different from each other, what they have in common is they're all manifestations of our right to organize and mobilize..."
Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO Civicus
           (4:45-5:08 of  Shrinking Civic Spaces)

The course also provides a link to an Oxfam video on some examples of civic tech projects. The video is a rather long webinar so here is the Google Doc of the presentation (23 slides) which has the advantage of making the associated links available. 

Our assignment for the third week was to create a team list of citizen actions that were digitally dependent, discuss the list as a team and list the team's responses to each of the following three prompts:

  1. How do digital tools allow us to participate more/better/at greater impact than before?
  2. The downsides of using digital tools for participation are significant. In what ways do you think digital tools should not be used for engagement in civil society (certain things, in certain ways)? Why?
  3.  What role do digital tools play in your team's action plan from Assignment #2?   
The team members each submitted their own lists and our team leader did a rather good job in organizing them into common themes.
  • Digital tools can take over for other forms of civil participation.
    • Digital tools make communication and organization faster and more possible.
    • Digital tools can make us more informed and expand our thinking.
    • Digital tools can spread false and misleading information very quickly and without check, as well as encourage superficial understanding of issues.
    • Digital tools can take over for other forms of civil participation.
    • Digital tools can lead to entrenched, narrow modes of thinking.
    As far as how do digital tools allowing us to participate more/better/at greater impact than before for myself, I cited access to the digitally available resources from different organizations in the NCP wiki, for example, Healthy Cities, Project for Public Spaces and Regional Governance and Policy. I also turned to new ways of thinking featured in the wiki, such as Systems Thinking Applications or Design Thinking or Community Arts or Asset Based Community Development. Then applying these to democratic processes involved concepts such as Governance through Community.

    The question of what are the significant downsides of using digital tools for participation and in what ways, (see Usman Haque) and when do you think digital tools should not be used for engagement in civil society have been dealt with before for some time?

    Digital democracy requires a level of individual digital literacy or fake news storytelling which can take over the community conversation. Tools like Big Data can be a two edged sword and used against the community interest. We often use digital technology in a superficial sense not drilling down into understanding the workings of the systems we wish to transform or the unintended consequences that could arise from our actions. I am also of the view that we can put ourselves into opposition or a role of permanent underdog rather than actually transforming governance. Instead of transforming a persistent deleterious entrenched system we merely enter into a subsidiary oscillating relationship with it.

    Part 3

    Active Digital Citizens Seeking New Community Paradigms pt. 1

    As I had mentioned before starting the Case Against the Case Against Democracy, I have now spent the last several weeks engaged in another online course, The Active Citizen in a Digital Age. As has been stated before, this is not a substitute for the course, merely a way to solidify and expand upon what was learned. The course is on how to be an active citizen in a democracy in the digital age. The form of democracy considered being a conglomeration of our own imperfect form in the US, strivings to develop from around the world, and as an ideal aspiration.  The focus starts off looking at democracy and the various means of interaction as an active citizen. 

    According to the first week of the course, there are three sectors of a democracy, the political process of voting and its related components, elections, campaigns, petitions, etc., then the marketplace, the economic and financial processes involving businesses, their suppliers, employees and customers and finally and most importantly civil society, the space for private actions within the public space, Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, and religious affiliations as well as actions such as protests.

    In the market space, one purchases products as a private person through a private exchange. With a government to which I am paying taxes for running that government, it is a public action for a public purpose within a public space for a public benefit. 

    Each sector presents different opportunities for involvement based on their differences in how they connect and how they use those connections to bring about change. So one could choose to boycott a product, write congress to have it banned or protest in front of a company. 

    In civil society, one maintains one’s own private choices even if and when in disagreement with others. The course sees civil society being able to hold in abeyance all the disagreement inherent within a community by providing safe space, making it private action but with the intention of bringing others together to create something that benefits other people generating private resources for public benefit. 

    “It is the place where our private actions to do things with other people with a public face comes into play.”

    An essential difference is whether the action is more individualistic or solitary as opposed to being more group or collective and therefore assumedly having a greater impact. The course sees the market sector being more individualistic and the political and civil society being collective.  The latter two likely requires mobilizing other people. 

    The second week switched to how we engage or what actions we can take within these three spheres cited above, political life, marketplace and civil society with more emphasis on the types of organizations and funding mechanisms making up each. 

    The political sphere involves direct engagement with our governing systems, “The political bodies that surround them,” particularly those responsible for lawmaking functions and the apparatus to support elections of officials, such as political parties, funding organizations, and campaigns. We can support and vote for candidates for office, donate or help raise campaign funds, register people to vote, gather signatures on petitions,  and voice one’s opinion about laws directly at the local, regional or federal level of government. With the exception of voting, all of these actions have a public face based on the principle that, “(If) the government is intended to represent the views of the people then the people have the right to know who is influencing the government.” 

    In some societies, political participation can be mandated, often as window dressing to legitimize a dictatorship but in most, it is seen more as a civil society duty, a civic duty, as “the basic obligation of democratic systems”.  Another aspect of participation in public life can include service in the military, mandatory in some democracies, voluntary in others. Finally, there is what the course claims as the never voluntary obligation of paying taxes. 

    The marketplace in which we buy the necessities and the desires of life, sometimes even choosing to invest in these enterprises provides an opportunity to interact either as consumers or investors. We can choose how we align our actions in the marketplace with our social and political principles of the other two spheres. This occurs without the same degree of public scrutiny unless we choose to do so differently. 

    Civil society includes nonprofit organizations, religious organizations, neighborhood associations, sports clubs, protest and advocacy organizations, and other forms of community, trade or professional associations, commonly thought of as the voluntary sector a participation is based solely on your own choice. These means one could donate money or time to organizations doing direct environment work or research to those advocating for environmental causes calling for action on climate policies through political action or protests. Participation is encouraged in many societies, and especially by most religious traditions with many privileging anonymous actions removing any obligations between giver and recipients. Again, creating a safe space. Therefore civil society actions such as charitable donations or associational choices are not considered public information.

    All of the choices or actions above can involve a digital component in their realization, using online platforms to find information, give to charities or shop with cell phones, using social media to tell everyone else what we are doing so as to influence or persuade others to join us. Digital tools can give us numerous means of participation thereby changing the ways in which our participation is recorded for posterity. 

    We then, having already submitted our own participation histories, looked at what others throughout the course for the many different ways other had taken in these arenas. The culminating task for the week was to come up with a mission statement to which everyone on the team could agree.
    Our team's mission statement was:

    “Our team wants to reduce the economic inequality of low-income people by providing access to affordable healthcare, education with job training, and housing.” 

    Accompanied by a protest photo advocating for these principles held by a marcher apparently with National Nurses United. 

    With this course, I again took a more subordinated role joining a team of six and following the lead of others though still putting forward my ideas. Though I pointed out that our mission statement was more general than those submitted by others in the course, I was comfortable enough to proceed if everybody else was.

    Part 2

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