Public Leadership for “Next Generation Democracy”

By Jared Duval (VT ’04)

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Just over five years ago
Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, creating a challenge of epic
proportions for the public leaders responsible for the rescues, recovery, and rebuilding
of New Orleans. I open my forthcoming book, Next Generation Democracy (Nov. 9,
Bloomsbury), with the stories of the rescue and recovery efforts, exploring those
that largely failed (namely FEMA), those that worked (the Coast Guard most of
all), and what separated the two.

Perhaps the most interesting
interview I conducted for my opening chapter, however, was not about the
immediate rescue efforts but longer-term rebuilding. A year after the storm
hit, New Orleans was still without a citywide rebuilding plan, a requirement
for federal aid to start flowing in earnest. The Mayor’s effort to create such
a plan had failed because of the public outcry that erupted after he cut
citizens out of the process and hired outside “experts” who proposed turning
low-lying neighborhoods – which also happened to be the poorest and most
African American neighborhoods – into green space.

Into the void stepped AmericaSpeaks,
an organization whose mission is to engage citizens in governance. Through a
series of three 21st Century Town Meetings, over ten thousand New Orleanians
demographically representative of the city by race and income deliberated with
their neighbors to work through the challenges facing their city. Using keypad
polling, these “Community Congresses” created the “Unified New Orleans Plan.”
The plan included some ideas suggested directly by citizens and came to win
overwhelming public support, finally providing a path forward for the city.  

One of the leaders who
facilitated community engagement for the Unified New Orleans Plan was Vera
Triplett.  I asked Vera how the process
of creating the plan changed her outlook about government.  What she told me opened my eyes to a whole new
vision of democracy and public leadership:

“At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s about letting people
who are impacted by something be a part of the decision-making process … For
a long time, our city elected people who thought of us as too stupid to make
our own decisions. But now I’ve begun deciding who to vote for based on whether
they are willing to have us actually be a part of the problem-solving process.
Before, we would give them votes or money. Now we want to give them evidence
and case studies, and we want them to make decisions on the ground with us, not
from some isolated and untouchable ivory tower.”

Vera’s view of a more collaborative
and directly democratic form of government seems to me long overdue. Many of
the assumptions that necessitated a more republican form of government, based
on a clear division between citizens and elected officials, no longer hold
true. Compared to the late 1700’s we have incredibly high literacy rates and
access to education. And with the great invention of the 20th
century – the Internet – we also now have near instant and increasingly
widespread access to information and communications costs are nearing zero. Altogether,
the prohibitive factors that once prevented citizens from effectively playing a
more direct role in government problem solving efforts are disappearing.

Another story I tell in the
book is that of the Internet startup company SeeClickFix, a web-based tool
for “turning residents into citizens.” Built on a Google maps platform, the
site allows anyone to report non-emergency issues in their community (ranging
from potholes to drug dealing to an area of town lacking a supermarket) with a
message, picture, or video. Through the site’s discussion forums citizens can
explore the complexities of the issue with other citizens and with government
officials. The amazing thing about SeeClickFix
is that it is not only a more transparent and effective reporting service aimed
at government, but also a tool for collaboration, with or without our
government.

It’s not a coincidence that
Ben Berkowitz, the co-founder and CEO of SeeClickFix, is only 32 years
old. The Millennial generation (those of us born roughly between the late ‘70s
and late ‘90s) has markedly different views than our elders about both the role
of government and how we want to interact with it. Consider that one of the
largest generation gaps in American politics today is on the question of “the
proper role of government.” According to Pew, 69 percent of Millennials “favor
an expanded role for government, agreeing that it should do more to solve
problems.” Yet among older generations, not one age group registers majority
support for that statement.

I believe that what
Millennials really care about though isn’t so much the size of government but
rather our process of governance.
Consider that, according to polling from Harvard’s Institute of Politics, fully
a third of Millennials express an interest in “internet collaboration with
government.” So while we may be fairly agnostic about the size of that more
active government we desire, it’s clear that we want to be able to do far more
than just vote and donate money.

In this context, I think we
need a new concept of what leadership means for public servants. It can’t be about
“vote for me and I’ll solve your problems for you.” After all, the “I’m the
decider” model is patronizing and uninspiring to a public with web 2.0 inspired
inclinations to directly engage in problem-solving efforts. Effective public
service leadership for our time should be more about facilitation and engagement.
As Vera Triplett said, it’s time for our next generation of democracy to be
about “letting people who are impacted by something be a part of the
decision-making process.”

Jared Duval (VT ’04) is a Fellow at Demos and the author of Next
Generation Democracy: What the Open-Source Revolution Means for Power,
Politics, and Change
(Nov. 9th,
2010, Bloomsbury). For those in DC, the launch event for his book will be Nov.
8th at 6:30 at the Busboys & Poets at 5th & K. 

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