The observations were compelling ones and surprising, considering their source.
First, Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League and former Colorado Democratic Party chairman, told the Forum for Civic Advancement in Colorado Springs that government in America today is “hypnotized by a ‘culture of cynicism.’ ”
Second, Gates said, the primary source of new initiatives to envision and create a better society in America increasingly will not be government – as it was widely perceived to be a generation or two or three ago – but rather the nonprofit sector.
The implication of this is that we must expect the impetus to come from individuals who share a passion and vision and band together to move toward higher ground. They will be people who can see possibility where others see futility, people engaged in largely voluntary associations of the kind Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of American culture, marveled at more than 170 years ago.
Today, it is often called “community trusteeship,” as Leadership Pikes Peak does, where caring, compassionate, committed individuals don’t seek permission, but rather allies in their cause. They simply do what they believe in their hearts needs to be done.
There are many intersections with government, but they provide the inspiration.
For some, their passion is to reform our schools, for others it is to transform a marginalized neighborhood or preserve our mountain backdrop. Still others seek to expand opportunity for participation in America’s “ownership society” through the pathways of higher education, entrepreneurship and home ownership. On and on, the possibilities seem endless.
Richard C. Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, paints a picture similar to Chris Gates’ in “Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back.” This work is based on 15 years of focus group interviews across America examining why people have increasingly disengaged from politics, the democratic process and in many cases community life altogether.
“One fundamental problem,” he contends, “is that politics and public life have failed to address people’s changing reality, leaving them feeling they are on their own, without the confidence that their concerns will be addressed.
“The second is …the actual distortion of people’s reality, whereby people’s concerns and hopes have been mercilessly abused or mangled in the daily iterations of politics and public life. Much of what they see seems unreal.”
The “way back” for Harwood, too, lies in “some simple but powerful conditions, all of which seem to revolve around the notion of possibility: the possibility of having a say, the possibility of creating and seeing change…the possibility of acting on one’s own interest in an issue.”
This is not to say government is irrelevant, but that we shouldn’t presume it must be at the center of this work. And it likely will be far different in look, if the observations of Stephen Goldsmith and William Eggers in “Governing by Network” are close to the mark.
For them “the traditional, hierarchical model of government simply does not meet the demands of this complex rapidly changing age. Rigid bureaucratic systems – that operate with command and control procedures, as well as inward looking cultures and operational models – are particularly ill-suited to addressing problems that transcend organizational boundaries.”
They speak to the “rise of government by network” where increasingly the work of government, however its essential roles are defined, will be done by the private and nonprofit sectors, rather than government employees; where more and more there will be collaboration among multiple layers of government and community-based organizations.
This trend today, they say, is both “greater in breadth and different in kind than anything seen previously.”
All of this suggests we need a new set of reflexes and a new paradigm for public conversation and discovery about how to best build a community rich in opportunity for the future. We need a new set of reflexes where when we see a possibility to strengthen our community we look not to government but to ourselves first as the source of transformation.
And in our future community conversations, we should not dwell first on the typically polarizing, mind-closing, too often demeaning debate about conservative vs. liberal values, big government vs. small, more government vs. less. That is not likely to accomplish much. Rather, the focus should be on how best to create and support community-based leadership and promising new pathways that can lift us to higher ground.
This leadership is rooted in trust, shared passion, vision and capacity to transform dreams into reality. It is leadership that makes a powerful emotional connection with others. If Chris Gates and Rich Harwood are right, we are not likely to find it often in government. We will find it far more often within ourselves.
And that is how we will build a true community of opportunity, one where our economy, our social sector and our environment all are healthy and symbiotic.
Jon Stepleton is a former member of the board of Leadership Pikes Peak, a graduate of the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute and civic activist exploring with associates new ways of strengthening the capacity of the nonprofit sector to fulfill its promise.