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American renewal: reconnecting citizens with public life.

American Renewal requires a profound shift in our conception of how change is prompted and sustained in communities. Part of the formula is constructive engagement of citizens in public life. Such engagement demands leadership capable of collaborating, as well as empowering citizens to perform many of the tasks of renewal themselves.

A growing sense of anomie pervades the conventional wisdom regarding the role of citizens in politics. This way of thinking holds that citizens no longer care about public life. They have no sense of civic duty or public purpose. They are apathetic and have no desire to participate in public concerns. Efforts to counter this breakdown usually look no deeper than reforms designed to improve faith and participation in electoral politics. Few politicians take the time to listen to Americans or understand how they feel about politics and the role they want to play in public life.

A 1990 study conducted by Richard Harwood for the Kettering Foundation tells a very different story.(1) Rather than being apathetic or unconcerned, citizens are angry and frustrated by politics as usual. They feel cut out of the process and unheard; they do not see how they can have any real impact on public affairs. Thus, according to Harwood's focus group research, government lies beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. Governing institutions do not respond to the concerns and needs of individuals, neighborhoods or communities, but to interest groups and power players.

Nonetheless, citizens genuinely want to be engaged in public life. They want their views to be heard, understood and considered. They want to have a sense that their involvement can make a difference, that the public defines the public interest, not government officials or narrow interest groups.

In 1989, the sprawling desert metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona launched a year-long, citizen-based strategic planning and community-assessment exercise called the Phoenix Futures Forum [see "The Phoenix Futures Forum: Creating Vision, Implanting Community," NATIONAL CIVIC REVIEW, 80:2, Spring 1991, pp. 135-157 -- Ed.]. The purpose of the Forum, according to an organizer, was to put government and citizens intimately in touch with each other so that one is the reflection of the other, and so government is a reflection of the kind of community the people want.

Citizens call for forums that can provide constructive ways for them to work together with governments on common problems. They crave information and problem-solving opportunities that transcend the polarization of exclusive partisan positions. They want intimate and direct contact with the issues and problems that concern them. Most of all, they want a sense of community, a sense that all of us are in this together.

There is no lack of desire among citizens to participate in public affairs. "I want more say in my community," said a Phoenix citizen." I want more say in what goes on." Fed up with gridlock and impotence, citizens are seeking new ways for public involvement. Faced with a paucity of formal options for engaging constructively with governing institutions around issues of shared concern, citizens are relying on themselves for leadership and initiative. They are tackling difficult problems not in anarchic or antagonistic ways, but in ways that reflect a new kind of democracy and sense of citizenship. It is a deeper, more intimate and inclusive kind of democracy -- more direct than representative, more consensual than voting. This vision of public life constitutes a shift in the practice of democracy from hostility to civility, from advocacy to engagement, from confrontation to conversation, from debate to dialogue, and from separation to community.

This shift is occurring in many places on many issues. Citizens no longer defer to elected leaders or experts, trusting instead in their own capacity to work together and their deep sense of commitment to each other and where they live. These collaborative endeavors are engaging people in new ways that provide the role in public life citizens want, get results, empower people, build a new civic culture, and renew a sense of community.


Robert Putnam of Harvard University has written a somewhat obscure but profoundly important book, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.(2) In a seemingly innocuous, thoroughly researched, comparative study of the 20 governing regions of Italy established in 1970, Putnam discovered that the relative success or failure of each region was not determined by the usual measures of prosperity, such as access to natural resources, abundant capital wealth or levels of education. Instead, it was determined by the degree to which trust, reciprocity and, therefore, civic engagement were woven into the social fabric of the region. According to Putnam's research, success or failure depends on the extent to which "civic community" exists in the community.

The civic community, Putnam's name for these networks and norms of civic engagement, is marked by "active participation in public affairs," and a steady focus on the public good, rather than on narrower parochial ends. There is political equality -- citizens are peers. There is a deep sense of individual rights, as well as obligations to the broader community. Citizens trust each other and remain helpful and respectful even when differences arise. There are deep, mutually reinforcing civic networks, associations and relationships that regularly bring citizens together in constructive ways. Putnam's findings were unambiguous: "Civic context matters for the way institutions work. By far the most important factor in explaining good government is the degree to which social and political life in a region approximates the ideal of the civic community."

Columnist Neal Peirce raised similar questions in his book Citistates: How Urban American Can Prosper in a Competitive World.(3) "Across America and across the globe," he writes, "citistates are emerging as a critical focus of economic activity, of governance, of social organization for the 1990s and the century to come." He defines a "citistate" as a region consisting of a historic central city surrounded by cities and towns characterized by social, economic and environmental interdependence. He argues that America's future economic success depends on the ability of American citistates, such as Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Houston, to compete with international citistates like Hong Kong, Milan, Singapore, London, and Barcelona. He identifies three barriers facing American citistates as they struggle to compete: first, the deep socio-economic gulf between poor cities and affluent suburbs; second, physical sprawl and its damaging environmental and social consequences; and third, the inability to found effective systems of coordinated (i.e., regional) governance.

Peirce's conclusions about how to deal with these challenges sound very much like Putnam's. If America's citistates are to succeed, they must "undergird governance with a strong civic organization." The purpose of this region-wide organization would be to work "for the shared and common good over pressure from special interests and the parochial positions of fragmented local governments." These organizations would provide the forums for addressing the governance issues of regions, fostering the partnerships necessary for success and engaging regional citizens in the collective concerns of citistates.

They key question underlying the work of both Putnam and Peirce is whether civic community can be created. The deep historical roots of civic community found in Italy make Putnam less hopeful about creating it in places where it does not now exist. "Where norms and networks are lacking, the outlook for collective action appears bleak." Peirce is more optimistic. He believes citizens and civic leaders can plan for and develop civic networks and the new collaborative leadership skills necessary to address the problems and concerns of citistates.

Successful communities, we have learned, can develop a different kind of civic culture that can enhance their long-term problem-solving prospects. The development of civic community is an outgrowth of engaging successfully and collaboratively around public issues. When citizens succeed in working together to address common concerns, new networks and norms of civic engagement are established, and the primary focus of work shifts from parochial interests to the broader concerns of the community.


Wherever one asks the question, "What makes leadership difficult on the issues your city faces?," the answers are similar whether the issue is education, health care, social injustice, economic development, or something else equally challenging. What are the typical answers? There are many people with the power to say no, but no single person or group with the power to act alone. People don't trust each other. There are hidden agendas. There is no larger vision that lends coherence to actions. No person or group has enough credibility to provide leadership. Nobody will assume a leadership role. People don't have the leadership capacities or group skills to work together constructively. There are not enough resources to address the problem. There are angry, frustrated citizens who can find no constructive way to engage in public life. Leaders and citizens avoid risk for fear of being attacked by others. The problems are complex and interdependent. They cross jurisdictional boundaries. No one is in charge. Many people don't know what the "real" problem is. Information about problems distorts understanding.

Most of these observations reflect the inability of people to work together constructively. They have to do with the process (or lack thereof) by which we engage each other on the issue at hand, not the substance or content of the problem. This is an important distinction: it means that some citizens or civic leaders must focus on the "process" of how people work together to solve problems, not on the "content" of the problem itself. In most communities, no one is paying attention to the process of how people engage on issues of public concern. They are too caught up in their own positions on the content or substance of the issue.

All of the answers to the question, "What makes leadership difficult?" are useful information for leaders. Each answer indicates an obstacle that must be addressed and suggests how a constructive process might be designed. For instance, if people don't know how to work together, teach them. If there is no agreement about the vision for the city or region, design an initiative whereby citizens can explore and agree on future needs and direction. If no one has the power to act unilaterally, or when no one is in charge, build a collaborative partnership. If no one person or group has the credibility to provide leadership, develop a structure for sharing leadership across the dividing lines of the community. When communities succeed in solving public issues these leadership challenges are consciously addressed.


In every city and town in America public opinion cries out for significant change in virtually every major area of community concern. Only in a few places does the political or institutional will exist to make any progress. Political leaders either fail to lead or can not lead because they are hamstrung by competing interest groups. These leaders respond, citizens say, only to interest groups and power players who are more interested in the negative use of power -- stopping others' actions that hurt them rather than moving forward on the public's concerns. The focus of leadership is on bringing together small groups of people or interest coalitions to overpower others and achieve narrow ends. As power becomes more fragmented this becomes more difficult. When it works it leaves people divided. When it does not work it leaves gridlock. The link between public opinion and political will is broken.

A new vision of civic action. Some places, however, are dealing with these challenges. In these places, citizens and civic leaders recognize a missing link between public opinion and political will -- civic will. Rather than wasting time and energy on the futile hope of finding new and better candidates for office or reforming electoral politics, some citizens and a few elected leaders are using collaborative approaches to creating civic will. They understand that if the civic will exists then political and institutional will must follow. Public policy problem solving and decision making are shifting from politicians to citizens. They get results by creating a new way of doing business around public issues.

The initiative for generating civic will can come from both "ordinary" citizens and elected leaders. Many collaborative initiatives are begun by citizens who, frustrated by the failure of traditional politics, want to find constructive ways to address public concerns. The motivation for elected leaders is similar. Impeded by power players and interest groups in their attempts to lead, they look to citizens and civic will to overcome political gridlock and bureaucratic inertia. They understand that civic will is the force that can prompt and sustain needed change.

The advantages for leaders of coalescing with citizens was recognized in 1739, by the Marquis d'Argenson, a public servant in the government of Louis XV, King of France. D'Argenson outlined a "royal democracy" that could overcome the resistance to reform of the country's nobility.(4) He understood that "democracy is as much a friend of monarchy as the aristocracy is an enemy." This new kind of collective community -- "a republic protected by a King" -- would address the concerns of citizens while sustaining confidence in the monarchy. Unfortunately, his advice went unheeded and the citizens sent Louis XVI to the guillotine in 1793 when all faith in the monarchy disappeared during the French Revolution. In more recent times, American citizens have lost confidence in political leaders who attended primarily to the "aristocracy" of influence and interest. Many of the country's best known leaders have suffered similar, if less violent fates.

The collaborative premise. In every arena, organizations, communities and regions around the globe exhibit a powerful drive to overcome gridlock and allow broader interests to prevail over the parochial concerns that undermine efforts at renewal and change. The means used are fundamentally different from those traditionally practiced; rather than relying on hierarchy, exclusion and brute force to achieve narrow ends, they rely on trust, inclusion and constructive engagement to achieve a shared, common purpose.

There is a fundamental premise -- the collaborative premise -- that supports these efforts. This premise holds that if you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with good information, they will generate authentic visions and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community. This constitutes a profound shift in our conception of how change is effected, and requires an equally profound shift in our conception of leadership. Rather than heroes who tell us what to do, we need servants to help us do the work ourselves.

New skills for citizens and civic leaders. Whether private citizens or elected officials, collaborative leaders operate under very different assumptions from those of traditional leaders. Instead of pitting groups or coalitions against each other, they look to the public for power and serve in a very different leadership role. They trust their fellow citizens in the collaborative process when it is inclusive, constructive and well informed. Their role is to convene, catalyze and facilitate the work of others. They inspire people to act, help them solve problems as peers, attract broad involvement, and sustain hope and participation. They also are willing to settle for no change. They know that the will to solve problems comes not from them or from elected leaders or "old boys," but from citizens engaged in addressing public issues.

Collaborative leaders possess new and different skills. They know how to analyze and understand the challenge of leadership and how to develop change strategies that will overcome resistance and inertia. They know how to bring citizens together and help them build trust and the skills for collaboration. They help design constructive processes to collaboratively solve problems and create shared visions.



American Renewal demands an overhaul of politics as it is traditionally practiced. This has implications both for leadership and citizenship. Individuals must acknowledge the leadership demands of active citizenship, and leaders, whether elected or informal, must recognize that collaboration in public life is necessary, and acquire the skills to unite and engage citizens in public problem solving when nothing else is working.


1 Richard Harwood, Citizens and Politics: The View from Mainstreet America (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1991).

2 Robert D. Putnam et al., Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

3 Neal R. Peirce et al., Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World (Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1993).

4 S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 113.
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Author:Chrislip, David D.
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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