The way we make change can be as important as the change we seek. Excessive focus on short-term elections and issues can undermine long-term progress. There is a better way—the Civic Way—that calls for rejecting partisan polarization, listening to one another, thinking about the future and working together for common goals. Civic Way offers a new, locally-driven approach for spurring civic progress, broadening civic engagement, strengthening civic leadership and improving governance. This approach is designed to help each community address the challenges and opportunities highlighted below.
Communities face many challenges that threaten their future, including the following:
- Civic progress – Our can-do spirit has yielded to political acrimony, betraying our legacy and threatening our future. The signs of US decline can no longer be denied.
- Civic engagement – Low civic engagement has many causal factors (e.g., the decline of traditional media). As civic ignorance grows, partisanship worsens, government credibility plummets and thoughtful voices fade.
- Civic leadership – Far too many communities lack the leadership and resources they need to make vitally-needed investments in the future and maximize their competitiveness.
- Governance – Our ability to govern ourselves and solve problems, once one of our strongest assets, is giving way to rigid ideology. The growing chasm between our politicians and communities poses an existential threat to our competitiveness and democracy.
To learn more about the challenges Civic Way was created to address, click here.
Every challenge can present an opportunity and Civic Way was created to seize the following:
- Civic progress – Defining progress more broadly could enable us to move from wasteful dogmatic debates to more meaningful explorations of future issues. If we focus on community-driven ideas, we could forge coherent plans, measurable targets and feasible actions around values we share.
- Civic engagement – As new technologies transform the way we gather, manage and use civic data, and social media and other convenient tools accelerate networking, we could be on the cusp of a new era of political activism and civic engagement.
- Civic leadership – Armed with a new model for change and ample resources, young civic activists could seize the torch of leadership, confront the future and put our communities back on the road to a more enlightened, competitive society.
- Governance – New public executives, fully prepared for the challenges of governance and held to a higher standard by the public, could improve governance, achieve real progress and restore civic trust.
To learn more about the opportunities Civic Way was founded to exploit, click here.
Civic Progress: The US is no longer the world’s undisputed leader. Through sacrifice, cooperation and smart investments (e.g., Land Grant Colleges and Interstate Highways), the US built a society to be envied. However, only two decades into the 21st century, our can-do spirit has yielded to political acrimony, thereby betraying our legacy and threatening our future. The signs of American mediocrity are pervasive. The US ranks 11th in Newsweek’s competitiveness index and still lower in educational and healthcare metrics. Our public infrastructure is crumbling and cybersecurity threats mounting. Other nations are outpacing us, and our heirs could pay dearly for our neglect.
Our competitiveness has declined for many reasons. More states are controlled entirely by one political party than at any time in the last 60 years, and neither party is immune to ideological missteps (both parties gerrymander districts to protect incumbents). GOP-controlled states suppress voter turnout to amass supermajorities to cut taxes, erode employee rights and gut environmental controls, all while deferring investments. Democrat-controlled states too often ignore the risks of fiscal deficits, governmental overreach and bureaucratic inertia. One-party politics produces one-track thinking.
Civic Engagement: Voter indifference is both symptom and cause of broken politics. Voter participation is abysmal. The US voter turnout rate for mid-term elections is the lowest of the world’s developed nations, and less than half that of many nations (e.g., Australia, Belgium, Chile and Sweden). In 2014, the mid-term turnout was the lowest in 72 years. At least four factors contribute to declining civic engagement:
- A dramatic decline in civic education.
- A willful ignorance of civic matters and relevant facts.
- The proliferation of web-based media and greater susceptibility to misinformation.
- The inability (or unwillingness) of media outlets to hold civic institutions accountable.
In this void, good ideas are neglected, and thoughtful voices muted by the din of shrill ideologies. Alienation and anger incite nascent waves of faux populism. As civic ignorance, indifference and conflict spread, government and other civic institutions lose credibility. As we lose the ability to think for ourselves, democracy becomes more and more fragile.
Civic Leadership: Too many communities lack a sustainable strategy to affect change. Many rely too heavily on the feds to solve problems. In an era of unprecedented federal debt and paralysis, this reliance is naïve at best. In some communities, civic groups come and go with the best intentions, lacking the focus, will or capacity for sustainable success. Others hang on, but without influence. The inevitable result is a polarized political landscape where communities—and some constituencies—fall further behind.
It is easy to blame others, but we may be more the cause of broken politics than the victim. We abrogate our responsibilities to politicians and sit by passively while they kick problems down the road. We too often emasculate our competitive capabilities with short-sighted policies that ignore vitally-needed investments in infrastructure, education and other vital assets. We exclaim our distrust for politicians while entrusting them with our future. We complain about government, but rarely insist on accountability. Instead of joining or leading the fight for improving our communities, we sit on the sidelines doing nothing.
Governance: At one time, America’s political system was one of its strongest assets. Our leaders and institutions helped preserve order, protect rights, foster opportunity and promote investment. But our long-standing commitment to compromise is fraying. We skew facts to fit our biases. At the federal level, we have devolved into a vetocracy. At the state level, bi-partisan problem-solving is yielding to paralysis. Even at the local level, our public policy is far too often shaped by ideology. While most Americans want a forward-looking, competitive and fair nation, one that wisely invests in the future, there is a growing chasm between the policies we want and the politicians we elect.
Why does our political climate seem so dysfunctional? There are many reasons. The media’s relentless appetite for sensational stories often leaves bold, honest leaders unappreciated and vulnerable. Some leaders are dogmatic and myopic, disconnected from the very communities they purport to serve. Too many candidates for public office make promises they cannot keep. Public executives (e.g., governors, mayors and county executives) often seem ill-prepared, if not ill-suited, for the challenges of governance. The mechanisms for holding government accountable remain weak. Such factors fuels a growing cynicism that government is unable or unwilling to serve people.
Civic Progress: Defining progress more broadly and objectively will help free us from dogmatic (and pointless) debates about public policies. Instead of becoming immobilized by emotion-laden ideological issues, we can turn to fact-based explorations of the best ways to build a more prosperous future. We can take a longer view and face the future with a coherent vision, measurable targets and pragmatic strategies.
Building a coherent vision from far-sighted, community-driven ideas and pragmatic solutions will resonate across constituencies, communities and states. This won’t require a realignment of values, but it will call for reapplying our values to practical solutions. This will enable us to build non-partisan coalitions across urban, suburban, exurban and rural areas based on shared values, aspirations and ideas, not just demographic identity. Broad consensus will enhance the prospects of success.
Civic Engagement: Data are proliferating exponentially, but technological advances are transforming the way we gather, manage and use it. More of us than ever before stay informed with mobile devices, stay connected with social media and use mobile devices to solve problems. Mobile data sources have accelerated the demand for algorithm-based services that match users with desired algorithm-based platforms.
What are the opportunities? As more of us spend time scanning civic data, we could seek better tools for navigating that data. Our appetite for credible web-based media and civic ratings could escalate. Our growing use of social media could accelerate civic networking. And new technologies could offer dynamic platforms for spurring civic collaboration (e.g., market-matching, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and participatory governance). Such trends could spur innovation in schools, homes and workplaces, but also offer harbingers of a new era of political activism. Technology offers a promising catalyst for civic engagement. Will we seize the opportunity?
Civic Leadership: Today’s leadership void is profound, but into this breach a new generation of civic leaders could leap. Young civic activists, frustrated by today’s political paralysis, could seize the torch of leadership and confront civic issues head-on. To fully realize the opportunity of new civic leadership, it is not enough for aging leaders to merely step aside. Converting the lessons of hard-earned experience into an integrated suite of civic leadership tools and laying the foundation for a national civic action network are two pragmatic ways to support new civic leaders.
Since the road to a more enlightened, competitive society is through our communities, it is critical to arm the next generation of civic leaders with the best possible tools. Supporting them with ample resources will help them align strategies, inspire activists and foster collaboration. Augmenting such resources with a new model for change, one that employs system concepts and connects civic leaders with a broader national network, will enable emerging civic leaders to start solving social problems from the ground up.
Governance: Winning and holding public office offers a unique opportunity, but governing requires more than intelligence, inspiration and charisma. It calls for preparation and discipline, and a robust, durable and fully aligned governance system. This system should include a variety of tools, such as transition plans, visioning templates, metrics, baseline assessments and best practices for reforms. A well-designed system will enable public executives to forge a coherent vision, and garner the data and tools they need to attain that vision. If nothing else, it will equip them for the challenges ahead.
Fully-prepared public executives—governors, mayors and county executives—can improve governance, bolster civic trust and achieve long-lasting change. As candidates, they will recognize that over-promising, while an alluring political strategy, is not a viable governance strategy. As elected officials, they will govern decisively, offering pragmatic solutions instead of empty slogans. As seasoned executives, they will usher in a new era of innovation, compromise and pragmatism, improve governmental performance and restore public trust in democracy. The rest of us must track their performance, hold them accountable and apply pressure when they fail to fulfill their promises.