The Networks of Self-Governance
At the heart of the problem of renewing a self-governing democracy in twenty-first century America are two questions. First, can we enrich the roles of citizens as problem-solving agents? Second, can the agencies of the administrative state at all levels of the federal system enable such productive engagement, and thereby take a rightful, even noble, place in a democratic theory and practice of self-governance? In short, can we find the sweet spots where productive civic agents and effective public agencies meet and produce public goods that are recognized as valuable by a democratic citizenry, in its various other roles as informed voters, righteous protesters, and cost-conscious taxpayers?
To be sure, these are not the only core questions of a public philosophy of self-governance. A social democratic welfare state requires that we design social and distributive policies in a way that enables citizens to better understand benefits as public goods; that allows us to protect, reform, and finance systems as needed; and that prevents people from becoming dependent clients of professionalized bureaucracies or self-interested claimants at the public trough.
The Founders invoked the ideal of republican self-government, though they never completely agreed upon what they meant by this. The rich and varied theoretical traditions upon which they drew—liberal, civic republican, Puritan commonwealth, and Scottish moral sense traditions, among others—had different emphases, though there were clear overlaps and fertile combinations. As various forms of civic associations, social movements, public lobbies, stakeholder groups, and deliberative forums have been layered into our democratic system over time, we need to think more broadly in terms of self-governance as a further distributed and networked form of democracy, rather than just self-government, in the sense of formal state institutions. In the twenty-first century, formal government institutions, no matter how well run, cannot perform essential tasks without enlisting civic associations, nonprofit organizations, and stakeholder networks to help solve complex public problems. This historical and institutional layering of democratic forms is the terrain upon which we continually reconstruct our self-governing democracy. Today, such reconstruction requires that we think more deeply about civic agents and public agencies.
The first thing we need to do is reimagine citizens as problem-solving civic agents who can produce public value. Pragmatic and skilled civic agents are especially required as public problems become increasingly complex, as the public itself becomes increasingly diverse in terms of identity and interest, and as knowledge becomes distributed beyond the professionals and public managers we delegate to solve problems. The citizen as pragmatic problem-solver needs to assume a central place, collaborating with other citizens and with diverse groups of stakeholders and sometime-adversaries, in effect coproducing public goods.
Such a conception for the citizen has always been part of American tradition, though it has tended over time to be squeezed aside by narrower conceptions—of the citizen as mere voter or taxpayer, as righteous protester or rights-based beneficiary. In the early commonwealth tradition of Massachusetts, the town meeting was not just for speeches, but also for distributing the numerous minor offices that made for self-governing communities. As many as three quarters of the adult-male population served in these at one point or another in their lives. The provincial government (later the Commonwealth) helped to catalyze productive efforts by building bridges, ironworks, schools, and even a college called Harvard, ensuring what one historian has characterized as “synergistic multiplier effects” across a rich civic ecology. Jefferson’s later ideal of “making every citizen an acting member of the government and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him,” and reserving for him “the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent,” drew upon these same traditions.
They extended later to territorial Kansas, where the New England Emigrant Aid Company (NEEAC) raised money from wealthy business donors as well as ordinary congregants and clergy, and enabled migrants to settle a free state. NEEAC agents—the community organizers of Kansas—helped the emigrants build schools and libraries, sawmills and gristmills, churches and newspapers, and what is today the University of Kansas. They attracted more free-state settlers from across the Midwest and outvoted those in favor of slavery in the emerging state.
A few contemporary examples help clarify what pragmatic civic action means today. Two decades ago, the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, a citywide advocacy group, demanded that citizens themselves play an active and ongoing role in the new community-policing program. Local residents would meet with police officers at monthly beat meetings to analyze public-safety problems, using not only the latest expert data systems, but also their own knowledge of places, people, and patterns of activity in their communities. They would also deliberate about community priorities and effective strategies, and then distribute further roles that they could play in tackling problems, including mapping street lighting, tree cover, and bus routes; holding prayer vigils and barbecue “smoke outs” in the midst of street drug markets; picketing the homes of landlords whose neglected buildings bred criminal activity; and conducting “clean and green” efforts to bolster community pride. Such strategies entailed the collaboration of other city departments, not as separate bureaucracies, but as partners in what citizens helped to design and implement as integrative solutions. Other civic groups, such as churches, community development corporations, and neighborhood business associations, contributed to the problem-solving strategies and became co-producers of the public good we call “public safety.” The motto of the program, pervasive in public outreach campaigns, captured this well: “Safe Neighborhoods Are Everybody’s Business”—the work of every citizen, not just the professionals with badges.
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