One Nation, Indivisible: Reconnecting the public with its public servants

by Julie Hanus
March-April 2009
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This article is part of a package on the golden age of re-engagement. For more, read  The Lonely American:  Choosing to reconnect in the 21st century,  The Art of a Lively Conversation : Be real. Be brave. Be bold. (And learn some manners.),  All in the Neighborhood : Want to see the world? Start by staying home.

As the world watches President Barack Obama negotiate his first 100 days—the hurdles, the triumphs, and the inevitable disappointments—it’s to be forgiven if the dazzling election of 2008 seems a bit distant. All eyes are on Washington, after all, waiting to see if the change foretold on the stump will come to fruition and, if so, to what degree.

Pull away from Capitol Hill for a moment, though, and it’s clear that what people expect from their government and how they plan to communicate with their leaders is already in the midst of a revolution—in large part because of what took place on the campaign trail in 2008.

Obama’s organization, in particular, resisted the old-school urge to control everything and stuck to providing tools and direction to volunteers in the field. The result was a self-organizing multitude of workers who show no signs of losing their momentum.

“With the Obama team already promising to bring his bottom-up, participatory model to the federal government, government agencies [are] under intense pressure to catch up,” write William D. Eggers and Tiffany Dovey in Governing (Nov. 19, 2008). “Legions of Obama voters will expect to interact with their state and local governments in the same way they did with the campaign.” Like being tapped for input on policy issues (akin to the crowd­sourcing Obama’s campaign employed when he was developing a health care reform proposal), or collaborating with bureaucrats hip to the “web 2.0 culture equation.”

To folks who grew up using the Internet, such shifts in governance might seem deceptively simple. The long-term impact, however, promises to be radical. One of the biggest criticisms of government is that “officials in central government never possess the amount of accurate information they need to make effective decisions,” Alasdair Palmer writes in Standpoint (Jan. 2009). “The claim that they are ever in a position to know ‘what’s best’ is simply bogus.”

Savvy collaboration between the public and its public servants promises not only to narrow the knowledge gap Palmer’s referring to; it’s likely to foster greater engagement and personal investment among all involved. After all, as Americans have seen again and again, when people who depend on government services—like education, policing, or welfare—are given a measure of responsibility and control, those services dramatically improve.

What’s more, just as the president is once again imploring people to ask what they can do for their country, opening the door to a more vibrant give-and-take would help build trust and engender a sense of collective purpose. Much of the good work currently done on the local level, like revitalizing neighborhoods and revamping city blocks, takes place at the grass roots. And people laboring on the front lines often harbor a deep-seated distrust of politics and political institutions. This us versus them mentality, reports the New Republic (Sept. 10, 2008), is something Obama started addressing almost 20 years ago, not long after leaving community organizing in Chicago to attend law school. “The problem we face now in terms of organizing is that politics is a major arena of power,” he said at a public symposium. “That’s where your major dialogue, discussion, is taking place. To marginalize yourself from that process is a damaging thing, and one that needs to be rethought.”

As those legions of campaign-primed voters press state and local governments to toe the participatory line, a new political-social structure promises to emerge, one in which governments, citizens, activists, and organizers collaborate in pursuit of the greater good. The results ought to be dazzling.

“It’s blindingly simple,” Simon Woolley writes in the New Statesman (Nov. 19, 2008), but “putting faith and confidence in ordinary individuals [inspires them] to do extraordinary things.”


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