Perspectives on Pathways - Why early-chain civic leadership

Posted on November 02, 2017 at 7:07 PM

This post is an installment in a series of posts of my personal reflections on Pathways for America, a nonpartisan civic leadership program I researched, developed, and implemented from 2016-2017 for Run for America. 

Leading up the creation of Pathways, we were focused on a broad, but fundamental, deficiency related to the present failing of public institutions. It is: Any progress on any issue is incomplete and unsustainable unless public institutions are fully equipped to be able to “successfully” tackle whatever issue or decision is in front of them. Here I'll explore why we focused on that, and a few things we learned.

Better Outcomes - Step 4

If members of the public believe (as they do) that the only way to get anything “right” out of the government is to apply intense pressure through marketing, lobbying, and advocacy, there is likely a broader systemic failing in how those public institutions operate and the outcomes they achieve (or don’t). Most Americans, myself included, are clear about their belief in this failure; at many levels of government. Especially in Congress, with a +/- 10% approval rating, regardless of your personal belief about what decisions should be getting made, the process by which those decisions would get made is anything but “successful.” If the environment in which public decisions get made doesn’t itself get fixed, any progress on any particular issue is going to be expensive to achieve, and at best, temporary. This is what we wanted to help solve.

We believed that there can be Better Outcomes, relative to what things are now, whether these outcomes are created by, or allowed for, by government. These outcomes are even more simply, just the realities of our existence within the jurisdiction of a particular government. And for better or for worse, public institutions have significant influence over them.

Better Public Institutions - Step 3

We suggested that getting to these Better Outcomes requires public institutions which are both more trusted and more effective than they are now. This may not be the only step, but it is a necessary step. This doesn’t mean a Better government that becomes Better because it commits to a policy, size, or ideology that you also agree with, but rather that public institutions are broadly, Better, regardless of one’s own personal perspective on whatever they actually end up deciding. For the moment, it might be easier to think of Better being related a little less to what they do, but more how they do, and why they do it.

We decided that the two most important components of this Betterness are:

  • Trusted: Where citizens are mostly engaged/informed and generally (not universally) supportive of the policies/programs of most governments, suggesting an awareness and degree of being bought-in to what the government does, and that decisions, if not always reflecting one’s personal preferences, are seen as being made in a fair, reasonable way, which advance reasonable interests as a community, state, or nation.

  • Effective: Where a body of public institutions (at any branches or levels) is able to efficiently and successfully figure out what to do, and then do whatever it says it will do. A government which can understand, set, measure, complete, and communicate about goals properly, respond to crises quickly and effectively, and form complex plans for the future in a way that meets whatever the stated goals are.

The large majority of people don’t believe most governments are either of those things. I would be inclined to agree with this perception - many public institutions in 2017 cannot be trusted to independently act in their citizens' best interests, and additionally, many are not particularly effective at understanding things or doing what they say they will do.

Better Civic and Political Spaces - Step 2

We suggested that the most critical prior step on a pathway to having trusted and effective public institutions would be for trusted and effective “civic spaces” to exist. Civic spaces includes public elections and the campaign environment, other public engagement opportunities, all types of related media environments. Really all things related to, outside of, or interacting with the election, political, policy, or governing processes.

Here we can think of the same two components as follows:

  • Trusted: People having confidence in the the different stakeholders which play different roles within any of these environments. Whether it’s a national media or a local paper, the election law enforcement agency, the politicians themselves, the political parties, etc. More people would more so engage in the processes because they would trust that doing so would bring some sort of value or impact that they were interested in seeing.

  • Effective: That each of these stakeholders is able to effectively and independently understand and carry out what it’s supposed to be doing. This isn’t trust for a stakeholder based on agreeing with a particular decision, but rather a deeper trust in that whatever the job of the stakeholder is, it will be done well and without bias, undue influence and authentically in the best interest of whoever is supposed to be served.

For example, in this environment, the media would be seen by most as thoughtful, independent, and accurate. Candidates would be seen by most as the best possible choices from among those who could be running for office. And laws governing the processes (campaign finance, etc) would be seen by most as ensuring that the democratic republican ideals meant to be underpinning American governance are being upheld, not undercut. This would be a space where people would engage systematically and on their own, without needing the billions of dollars spent on getting out the vote and other extremely expensive processes which are meant to improve civic engagement or political participation but ultimately have extremely short-term and minimal impact, in large part because they are making up for a deeply disengaged and distrustful (for good reason) populace.

Better Citizen Civic Leadership - Step 1

For those spaces to exist, we suggested that we need something which we also don’t have right now - more trusted and more effective citizen civic leaders.

We can think about these for citizen leaders as:

  • Trusted: People who are able to be trusted to be thoughtful, effective, and fair leaders, and/or seen as just generally reasonable, trustworthy people. They are not necessarily trusted because they are subject-matter experts, or because they agree with a particular side, but rather because they are seen not just by one group, but by several different groups as fair and objective and “in it” for the right reasons. They would be desired to be included in decision making processes not because of their specific position on an issue, but because of the trust in their fairness or honesty with which they would approach any issue.

  • Effective: People who can successfully identify long-term goals, reconcile different ideas and goals among diverse groups, put together logical and smart strategic plans, and then be able to actually do the work to carry out, measure, and scale those plans. There are many, seemingly in greater numbers among those who run for office, who appear to have never planned, executed, or managed projects or programs directly from start to finish, and who actually don’t really know how to do “work.” On the flipside, there many highly organized and effective workers, managers and planners, who can do these things, and may do so in any number of different environments, but not “politics.”

First on trust. We suggested that in this age of hyper-fragmented civic, social and political leadership, where political and social voices tend to represent (and constantly rally) a very niche group of like-minded individuals, rather than providing leadership which builds powerful and unified cross-identity or cross-demographic coalitions, the existence of more influential, authentic, and unifying civic citizen leaders is one of the more important steps towards doing Better.

Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone called these types of actions either “bonding,” for building within an existing niche identity group, or “bridging,” for building across multiple different groups. We are in an age of bonding, and very little formal or informal bridging opportunities among different groups even exist. Worse, most of our technology which was overly optimistically seen as providing more diverse and more connected perspectives seem to be in fact largely contributing to the opposite, building hyper-personalized fragmented online realities that allow people to live in whatever reality they’d like to live in, not what actually exists, and not necessarily exposed to the realities of others.

In fact, the feedback from Pathways program participants at various stages of soliciting ideas about improving communities and the world in the long-term, was that overwhelming majorities of groups, often unanimously, identified some type of “bridging” activities between or among different groups as a top priority, especially identified was bridging between citizens registered as democrats and republicans, and also bridging people who live in urban and rural areas (an area that represents one of the most important bridging opportunities, in my opinion). Most participants would go on to agree that there were very few places where they felt they could actually do this currently (one of the reasons for our program), and it was a very top priority to figure out new ways to help people do that.

The existence of trusted and effective civic leaders, who can successfully bridge, would provide a tremendous infusion of unifying political capital which is so desperately needed to move past the primarily partisan, political, and demographic gridlock which is stalling thoughtful progress on any number of issue areas from the get-go. Our two major parties are incentivized (for a number of reasons which should be discussed at length another time) to be primarily, if not exclusively, focused on the defeat of the opposing party rather than the accomplishment of any particular goals or or outcomes for people other than those who they consider part of “their base.” But at various moments in history, including the founding of this country and the writing of the constitution, there was a greater degree of shared long-term vision or goals that was one part of what allowed differing views to eventually get reconciled into a single plan. Often, in those environments, there were leaders who were trusted by multiple "sides," who were able to help bring some of these differing groups together, something harder to find in political spaces in 2017.

Second, on effectiveness. There is a significant lack of support in most educational spaces, public and private, k-12 and collegiate, to actually teach people how to do real, good work. We seem to have mastered teaching people how to follow arbitrary rules, remember facts and figures, and hold themselves accountable in ways that don’t actually relate to reality and are provably subjective (grading, for example). And yet, we seem surprised when similar "inside the box" behaviors are exhibited in how political actors or governments operate. Standardized tests and grades are no more related to how smart and successful a student may be in life than polling results, crowd sizes, or social media shares are to a whether a politician actually did a good job on any particular issue. This isn’t specific to these fields, I’ve written and spoken before about this strange accountability problem we have, whether students to educational institutions, nonprofits to foundations, politicians to citizens and the list goes on. As a management and implementation consultant, I’ve been constantly surprised at the poor internal performance of organizations who seem to continually impress their bosses or funders by being able to frame what they are doing in a way that makes it sound better than it is, so they can continue to be funded, etc. Because they must to be successful to survive, much like a politician, there has been a long-running incentive to figure out ways to always appear to be successful, which often isn't true, and worse, often directly detracts from one’s ability to actually be successful.

We need more civic leaders (and people, generally) who can walk the walk, and we need more people to be able to, on their own, evaluate whether someone else can, or is, walking the walk, so they can decide how they want to hold them accountable. If more people simply know more about how things get done or don’t get done, holding politicians and governments accountable would be much easier, more independent, and more accurate. And if we want to ultimately get closer to civic spaces and governments working better, we have to be more serious about supporting people to learn how to work really, really well. We’ll need to do things like teach students, at younger ages, how to figure out - on their own - how to understand and conceptualize big problems, set goals, draw up plans, execute correctly, track and measure and evaluate accurately, and teach others about what they did. If students aren’t finishing school with the ability to do this on their own, unintimidated by big, long-term challenges, and confident they have the resources to tackle it best they can, we are going to continue to see even people with good intentions not able to properly execute.

Personally, I was lucky in this regard, because I was able to attend a college where you had to set your own goals for what you wanted out of your college time, including creating your course of study, keeping yourself on deadlines, holding yourself accountable in a critical fashion, and spending your final year on one long-term project that you designed. Had I not had the chance to do all of that it’s unlikely I would have been confident enough, or qualified enough, to put my own political campaign together when I was 23, and ultimately execute a four-year term as a municipal CEO that was extremely productive and impactful.

A Better Program

Working towards the completion of the last goal: the existence of “better” citizen leaders, is where we decided to put most of our energy for this program. A few things worth noting about that.

First, we suggested, and indeed found to be true, that this is a “minimally partisan” space, where most issues can be discussed and explored, even among people of different ideologies or party registrations, without running into the kinds of discussions that immediately divide a group or even two people, and prevent further progress from being made. The lack of general ability for political leaders and citizens to even engage in a discussion without forming non-negotiable sides is perhaps one of the greatest challenges that we face. And taking a broader, more fundamental look at the underlying problems facing our democracy in a structured fashion seemed to help us avoid quite a bit of that.

Second, we believe it to be one of the more, if not the most, undervalued part of the process towards ultimately better outcomes. In initially evaluating the goals and methods of many organizations and individuals in these spaces, we found most of them to be aligned in favor of particular ideologies, policies, or demographics. The value of any of these is certainly up for discussion, but being organized in that way from the start prevents the truly cross-demographic bridging that we believe is so absent from most spaces and so importantly needed.

Third, we believed it to be the most long-term sustainable option. It seems unlikely to produce immediate short-term benefits, although it’s possible that assumption could be wrong in how quickly people internalize and operationalize some of the longer-term values that were part of the program, but in working through the need for better long-term, sustainable leadership, seeding this now in this early form for future benefit is a priority, really a necessity. And ideally, we can learn from what we did, talk about it openly and find ways to incorporate these kinds of self-driven, confidence and independence building programs at younger ages, at various points throughout one’s life. We need to find ways in this country to place a great emphasis on self-guidance, lifelong intellectual, practical and execution skills development, and internal capacity building. This all seemed like the most likely way to produce new ideas or values in program participants that were strengthened against erosion from negative sources throughout the person’s development and life

There is no final conclusion or sweeping statement I want to make at the end here. Rather, I wanted to share some perspective and reflect on why we decided to construct this unique program the way we did and a few of the many points that we learned. Please feel free to reach out if you want to learn more - program development was pulled from many existing sources and perspectives of those who have worked in related fields, and I’m happy to share anything that might help with anyone interested!