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Building civic agency: the public-work approach
Harry C Boyte, openDemocracy
November 21, 2007

The central problem of the 21st century is the development of civic agency. Civic agency is the capacity of human communities and groups to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems across their differences of view. It involves questions of institutional design (that is, how to constitute groups, institutions, and societies for effective and sustainable collective action) as well as individual civic skills. Civic agency can also be understood in cultural terms, as practices, habits, norms, symbols and ways of life that enhance or diminish capacities for collective action.

Today many divisions and dynamics undermine capacities for collective action. These include racial prejudice and divisions along lines of income, partisan politics, faith, and geography. Underlying such widening divisions and contributing to the erosion of civic agency are invisible patterns of power - "technocracy", domination by experts removed from the common civic life. This pattern has intensified greatly in information-based economies, spreading like a silent disease, presenting itself as an objective set of practices and procedures often carried out by those with the best of intentions. Technocracy turns groups of people into abstract categories, while conceiving of people without credentials as needy, ignorant clients or customers to be rescued or manipulated. Technocracy decontextualizes "problems" from the civic life of communities. It privatises the world, creating a sense of widespread scarcity. It sharply erodes the subjective experience of equal respect.

Abetted by the explosive growth in communications technologies, technocracy also generates what can be called "slash-and-burn politics", named for agricultural techniques that produce quick harvests but ravage the environment. Slash-and-burn politics uses a formula that involves finding an enemy to demonise, whipping up mass emotions, shutting down critical thought, and projecting the fiction that leaders or experts know best. Karl Rove, architect of George W Bush's political career, was a master at its techniques, but he did not invent them. Indeed, their origins are on the left, in issue-campaigns around "good causes" like the environment, based on techniques of mass mobilisation.

Since expert-controlled systems offer few prospects of successfully addressing complex problems, developing civic agency has never been more important. Nor have obstacles in the way ever been larger.

An inclusive paradigm

For the last twenty years, the partnership work of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (CDC) at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute has sought to develop an adequate framework for building civic agency that addresses public problems while also taking up long-term goals of transforming technocratic cultures and generating a new civic politics. This requires practices that cultivate respect for the talents, intelligence, and creativity of groups generally considered to be on the margins of public life such as young people, low-income communities, racial minorities, and new immigrants.

Our framework for action is based on our theory of public work. The CDC defines public work as sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things - material or cultural - of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process.

Public work shifts from the paradigm that now dominates in most professional systems and in many institutions, centred around one-way expert interventions, to a citizen-centred approach that taps and develops diverse talents. The public-work framework also liberates professionals, expanding their power and effectiveness as they give up the illusion that they can - or should - control processes and outcomes. I believe this change in paradigm will be necessary if there is to be the kind of exponential increase in effective public actions required to address our common challenges in communities and the world.

The citizen as co-creator

A public-work framework has five elements:

  • Public work renews an older sense of politics. Politics - from the Greek politicos, "of the citizen" - is best understood not as ideological warfare but as the reverse: practices that surface the irreducible plurality of interests and ways of seeing the world which is part of the human condition. Sometimes interests can be integrated; sometimes the effects of clashes in interests can only be mitigated. Politics does not aim at "harmony" or the dissolving of all conflicts, but rather at negotiation of interests into action that avoids violence and that produces beneficial public outcomes. Politics, in this sense, is a dimension of every environment, not simply government
  • Public work conceives the citizen as a co-creator of a democratic society. The citizen as co-creator is a problem-solver and co-producer of public goods, a far more robust definition than volunteer, voter, protestor, client, or customer. The citizen as co-creator recognises standard definitions, like legal membership, but it opens space for others - such as undocumented workers or children - to gain civic authority and respect through recognition of their contributions, to be "citizens today, not citizens-in-waiting"
  • Public work is rooted in the life of places. The slogan "think global, act local" has its uses, but also its limits. We need also to "think local", developing a new appreciation for places as the root system of a democratic society. This also involves reconnecting mediating institutions like schools, businesses, congregations, unions, and non-profits with local communities
  • Public work reconceptualises the professional role. Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation has called on openDemocracy for a "revolutionary social science" that recognises that knowledge is co-produced by diverse groups, not simply academics (see "A world made new through love and reason: what future for 'development'?", 26 April 2007). Such revolutionary social science is infused with the purpose of helping to animate the public world, not mainly securing commercial gain or communicating to other academics. This civic approach to social science also implies a profound reworking of the professional role, from service deliverer and outside expert to collaborator, organizer, and catalyst - "on tap not on top"
  • Public work shifts the definition of democracy. From a public-work perspective, democracy is not mainly elections, laws, and institutions but a society, a lived cultural experience, "not just out there in the public sphere", as Barbara Cruikshank has put it, "but in here, at the very soul of subjectivity." Government is best conceived not as prime mover but as catalyst and resource of citizens. Democracy itself is, in fact, a kind of work. Its labours occur in multiple sites, enlist multiple talents in addressing public problems, and result in multiple forms of common wealth. The public works of democracy create an environment of equal respect.

We have found that developing the skills, habits, concepts, and practices of public work and the cultural change it generates can profoundly transform people's sense of possibility. Today most people feel besieged and overwhelmed about mounting challenges, from global warming to poverty, from "achievement gaps" to health. The public-work paradigm renews practical hope that we can address such problems effectively and even that such challenges are opportunities for growth and for the building of civic culture. It will not be quick or easy or simple, but I believe that over time the paradigm of democratic society as the public work of all citizens will replace today's culture of fear and scarcity with a culture of abundance.

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