Open Government Initiative

The Obama administration is holding an online brainstorm session on as part of its open government initiative.

How can we strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness by making government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative?

Anyone interested can go to the site, register, and then vote on ideas and add new ideas.

The Permanent Campaign

The Obama administration’s outside arm, Organizing for America, is now adding the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination to its roster of issues that it is calling on the American people to lobby for. We the people are being called on to help the administration pass its health care and Supreme Court battles.  These are good fights; I’m all for them.  But once again I’m disappointed in the model. As I posted back in January, organizing and mobilizing are two different things.  To mobilize the public is to get the public active in supporting a given proposal. To organize the public is to help the public for so that it can decide and articulate public will and create civic capacity for change.

As it stands, Organizing for America is trying to use the campaign model that worked so well to elect Barack Obama to work again to lobby for issues.  But this isn’t going to work.  In an electoral campaign people are being asked to do something, to focus on specific action for a specific day.  Albeit limited, this is public action. Now people are being asked to hold house meetings to talk about Obama’s health care policy, to learn about it, tell stories about what that policy would mean for them, get excited about it, and maybe write their members of Congress.

They are not being asked to deliberate.  They are not being asked to think through the issue and come up with their own ideas about what kind of health care policy would work.  They are not being asked to think outside the box that is being handed to them.  (Single payer, anyone?)

Okay, this may be better than nothing.  It is nice that government is paying attention to the people.  But I worry that this lack of imagination and playing it safe will be counterproductive and give the impression that all citizens can or need do is latch on to the policies that their favorite leaders have proposed when in fact it is important that people  work through and think through issues themselves, ideally in the company of others.  House meetings would be a great place to start.  But the agenda should not be how to get policy x to win; it should be to start from scratch and think through a variety of alternatives, including, for example, single payer or any other that seems at all promising.

There’s little like this to do on a Supreme Court nomination.  That issue is a straight up issue of lobbying.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  (And I’m proud I was part of an important campaign twenty years ago to block the nomination of one especially conservative Supreme Court nominee.) A house meeting on Supreme Court issues could have a very general agenda of thinking through the role of the courts, of how representative judges should be, about the hold of past precedent versus new thinking.

Public discussion, deliberation, and organizing is good for generating public will, and if that will happens to coincide with proposed public policy, then it can be an important engine for creating civic capacity for change.

Food Matters

In my book, it’s officially summer.  The semester is over; the neighborhood pool is open; the days are longer; work revolves around writing; and family life takes on a greater dimension.  I just finished reading a book where the political, the personal, and the gastronomic come together: Mark Bittman’s Food Matters.  This is the same Mark Bittman who taught me how to make crusty delicious white bread.  But this book has taught me to think whole grain.  And vegan.

Mind-opening statistic: livestock production contributes more to global warming than transportation.  We already eat vegetarian at my house.  But I’ve never been much into gving up eggs and dairy.  I like Bittman’s approach: vegan until six.  I can do that.

Here’s another review of the book.

Blogging in Rockville

I’m liking the way my friend and colleague-in-good-work Brad Rourke is using his blog to post his daily “thoughts on public life, ethics, nonprofit management, technology, and more.” He regularly posts a synopsis of stories that jump out at him with an explanation of why they are of interest.  These are often national stories, but it’s cool that Brad’s roots are firmly in Rockville, Maryland, where he’s very involved in the civic and rock-and-roll life of the community.

Oh, and I like the way he has an rss feed of his twitter tweets on his web page.  I’m going to have to figure out how to do that…

EDIT: Now I’ve got that Twitter Feed on the left had column.

A Phenomenology of Democratic Politics, 3d post

In two previous posts I started to lay out the argument, if you can call it that, of my new book project on democratic politics.  I don’t think it is right to call it an argument, exactly, because what I am really doing is laying out a general account of what I think is at work in democratic forms of self-organizing, deliberating, choosing, and acting.  I’ve called this a “phenomenology,” but Colin Koopman convinces me that this isn’t an apt phrase.  So this is a project very much in search of a title.

Rather than go piecemeal through the account, let me here offer a general outline of the whole project.  This is going to be a bit cryptic, but I hope understandable enough to spur some good conversation.  Here goes.

1. Politics from 30,000 feet
i)    politics as problem solving (Xav Briggs)
ii)    politics as world building and self making, anti-alienation, belonging, creating something a public sphere in which one sees oneself (Boyte’s comment at April DD, Arendt)
iii)    deciding what to do in the face of uncertainty

2.  Democracy from 30,000 feet
i)    as governance (whether representative or participatory)
ii)    as a political culture (whether robust and deep or atrophied; e.g. Haiti “no one goes outside”)
iii)    as a functioning whole, trying to put together the whole story to create a functional democratic society

3. Democratic Politics
i)    definition: the situation when all who are affected by common matters have a meaningful opportunity to shape their world, to deliberate, decide, and act
ii)    as a resistance to subjection, a resistance to the power of “what is,” as a normative orientation to creating something better than what is

4. Deliberation
i)    only occurs when one has to choose
ii)    choice work or the work of mourning
iii)    dealing with differends (e.g., the meaning of “America” in the immigration debate)
iv)    as a process for creating public will on matters of common concern (and in a democracy only those institutions and policies based on public will have legitimacy)

5. Democratic Ways of Knowing (Epistemology)
i)    given that politics arises in the midst of uncertainty, without any given authoritative source (Barber), how are people to know what choices to make?
ii)    the definition of the situation (Goldfarb) or “naming and framing”
iii)    the self-authorizing nature of democratic knowledge
iv)    in relation to expertise and professional knowledge

6. Civic Capacity
i)    the power to act, not just the will but the way (Briggs)
ii)    lessons from emergence theory (March Dayton Days)
iii)    horizontal power, the potential that springs up when people speak and act together (Arendt)
iv)    a mindset where people see themselves as having authority to decide and act, where the office of citizenship is robustly understood
v)    vital resource for development and economic flourishing
vi)    in a democracy it is often dispersed throughout society rather than concentrated in relatively few people
vii)    how to create civic capacity ex nihilo, in cultures lacking social capital

7. Democratic Public Action
i)    organizing not just mobilizing (Boyte)
ii)    the power of small things (Goldfarb)
iii)    the performative nature of political change: acting “as if” to make something so (Zerilli, Goldfarb)

8.  Venues for Democracy
i)    community organizing and self-organizing communities
ii)    civil society (the blobs and the squares) and why civil society isn’t always democratic
iii)    the importance of convening spaces (Boyte’s “free spaces”), mediating institutions (e.g., church basements for IAF)
iv)    the politics of where we live, local communities
v)    the politics of our associations, offline and online, often not local
vi)    new media and the ability to engage 24/7, how to make this expression or sublimation meaningful and democratic

9. Connecting a culture of democracy with the project of governance
i)    understanding the prevalent disconnect between the public and government
ii)    can public will and civic capacity hold government accountable? (e.g. in cultures rife with corruption or in failed states)
iii)    the potential and the limits of participatory governance
iv)    finding meaningful ways for government to engage the public – beyond the model of public interest lobbying and beyond mobilizing
v)    marshalling civic capacity to create more functional and democratic societies

Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock on doors to turn out votes.  Does it have a place in an administration?

Harry Boyte of the Humphrey school at the University of Minnesota seems to think it should.   But should it?  Does the buck stop at the President’s desk, or do we all share some deep responsibility to change this country?

Here’s a snippet of Boyte’s recent op-ed on the topic:

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from “we” to “I.” The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration’s potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out “yes, we can” in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that “all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.” He had learned a philosophy of civic agency — that we all must become agents of change — from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. “I’m asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I’m asking you to believe in yours,” read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign’s field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, “The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance.” Field director Temo Figueros explained, “We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves.”

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already,” he laughed. “I’ve got more than enough to do.”

The change has partly reflected the administration’s adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama’s words about citizenship and involvement “were just throat-clearing.” Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government’s role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are — deliberation, community service, advocacy — fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship — that democracy is the work of us all, that government is “us,” not “them” — have sharply eroded.  [read more]

If we all had a role, what would that be? I want to agree with Harry, but I’m not sure how to “operationalize” that on day-to-day matters, including waging and ending wars.

My guess is that we can still be the ones we’ve been waiting for if we realize the importance of public will and civic capacity.

When I was a kid, my family adopted a retired, champion Afghan hound.  The owners said that she could jump our eight-foot fence, but not to worry — she didn’t know she could.

Likewise, I think that there is tremendous power that the public has to create or block change, but generally we seem to be oblivious to this power, even though it has tremendous effects large and small.  I’m referring to the power that Hannah Arendt noted that is created when people talk and act together — the capacity that is created to create and transform a public world.

As for how to operationalize this, we need practices and spaces to make this real.