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Aligning the Work of Government to Strengthen the Work of Citizens

This February 2010 report to the Kettering Foundation, “Aligning the Work of Government to Strengthen the Work of Citizens: A Study of Public Administrators in Local and Regional Government,” was written by W. Barnett Pearce (pictured here) and Kimberly A. Pearce.

The Pearces’ report surveys California administrative leaders from cities and counties, noting their changing views of “public engagement.” The main research question for the study was “What do public administrators need to know and to do in order to promote and respond constructively to an engaged community?”

Download the report here from the NCDD site.

The main research method was participatory action research. The Pearces took advantage of an opportunity to work with Common Sense California (now the Davenport Institute), a multi-party, nonprofit organization founded in 2005 whose purpose is “to help solve California’s public problems by promoting citizens’ participation in governance.” They offered their services in helping design and evaluate a series of seminars for public administrators in exchange for access to those seminars and contacts and information gathered in other CSC projects.

The report is chock-full of useful quotes from public managers like this one:

“It is part of our job to get the public engaged to give a meaningful voice and ultimately have control over their government…[civic engagement] is not in addition to, but it is the work…if we are going to be as good as we can be in serving the community.”

– David Bosch, Manager, San Mateo County

Here are the sections included in the must-read conclusion of this paper:

  • Public administrators question the public’s will or ability to communicate responsibly in civic engagement.
  • Public administrators think of civic engagement in the context of their professional responsibilities.
  • Public administrators are reassured by the experience of their peers and adaptable examples.
  • Civic engagement involves “culture change” and “authenticity.”
  • Public administrators have powerful motivations to support civic engagement.
  • Public administrators know that they need to develop new skills for supporting civic engagement, but are not sure what those skills are.

About the Authors: Barnett Pearce is Professor Emeritus at Fielding Graduate University; Kim Pearce is Professor at De Anza College. Both are Principals of Pearce Associates, Inc. and Founding Members of the Public Dialogue Consortium

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Add a Comment

  1. Sandy Heierbacher Says:

    Here’s a wonderful comment about this article from Gary Petersen…

    Interesting to learn about the motivation of the public sector managers. I am reminded of a wise old Jesuit who said to me “change will come, we can be drawn by the wisdom, or driven by the pain, but change will come”.

    As a public sector practitioner of Civic Engagement I agree with the findings in almost every way. I might add that nothing succeeds like success. When a civic engagement process is done well, remarkable things happen. I think of planning processes where those who developed the plan (staff and citizens) coherently defended both the plan and the process to disruptive citizens. It changes everything when a plan developed with citizen input is defended citizen to citizen. Recently I ran public budget meetings in very volatile situations. The meetings were arranged so that citizens spoke to each other about what was working what wasn’t and what they needed. The job of staff and the electeds was to listen, not react but listen. The experience proved both eye-opening and eventually, once citizens saw their recommendations show up in the budget, trust building and everyone wanted more.

    I was raised to believe in the value of citizenship, the idea of citizen’s taking responsibility for creating and sharing in government. For me civility is a part of that and I am by now convinced that traditional paternalistic and expert driven structures do not foster civility and citizenship but impede it. Civic engagement as an embedded practice in local government gives me great hope.

    Kim and Barnett have been at this for many years, it must be satisfying for them to see “the shift” starting to happen.

    Again great document.

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