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civic agency: the public-work approach
C Boyte, openDemocracy
November 21, 2007
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
citizen as co-creator
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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