Why we need public innovation

Folks, we need a new kind of public innovation in our communities if we are to make the progress in public life and politics we all seek. Just last week, a person from California who is working to create change in that state made the following observation: people will decide to join with him almost as a matter of faith, or they will retreat because their rational mind tells them that everything in public life is too overwhelming to effect.

What’s our response to be?

Experience tells me that many, many Americans know they want change in public life and politics. But I also find people believe that their current path of engagement is not the right one; and yet, they cannot always see an alternative that makes sense to them. Indeed, people often find themselves stymied, frustrated, sometimes even stuck in place. The result: people either retreat or keep doing what they already know.

This is a dilemma for many community foundation staff, United Way leaders, school superintendents, news people, civic organization heads, and everyday individuals trying to make their communities better. I have had countless conversations with such folks about wanting to find a different path for making progress.

Here’s one part of the problem. Our current system of public life and politics has calcified and become increasingly rigid. I’ve seen this first hand in my work over the last 20 years in communities, and average Americans I’ve spoken with echo these sentiments (see Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back). Our public debates have become acrimonious, divisive, and lacking in substance; problems seem to get superficial treatment; people believe there is no place for their voice. What’s worse, our leaders continue to say they are listening, but when people speak to them, what they hear back in speeches and see in actions not only fails to reflect reality but often distorts their concerns.

Now, in recent years, we have had almost an entirely new system overlaid on top of the calcified one – for instance, think about the Internet and cable TV (among others). With the advent of the Internet, hundreds of thousands of people can now simultaneously be mobilized to write their elected officials simply by pressing a button; people can aggregate their own news and bypass stories they do not like; organizations can connect with more people more efficiently and routinely. The problem is that this system allows us to bypass the old one and narrow our own focus (even turning our backs on others).

While we desperately need good mechanisms in public life to help us turn ideas into action, “mechanistic” responses will not meet a pressing fundamental need gripping society: the desire among people for a sense of possibility and hope in public life and politics. Nor will mechanistic responses, whether online or offline, necessarily address the underlying, base-level systemic concerns people hold: that our institutions and organizations and leaders are disconnected from them; and that many people are simply disconnected from one another.

Today, I believe our fundamental task is to help people create new pathways in public life and politics. But not just any pathway will do. We must not fall into the trap of believing that various programmatic or one-off or other novel-sounding initiatives will meet the challenges before us.

Instead, we need a kind of rewiring of public life and politics so that there can be more given-and-take, more focus on people’s real concerns, a harnessing of our civic energies to create change. We need approaches that are sustained over time because people live life overtime, not simply in fragments of time.

Surely, none of us can create such change alone; only the dynamic created by our collective efforts will help us to fulfill this fundamental task. So, over the next few days I will talk more about the kind of public innovation I believe we need in public life and politics. I won’t have all the answers; but I do hope to deepen our conversation. I hope you’ll join me.