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Book Club Final Week: Constructive Politics as Public Work

Our summer book club on Democratizing Deliberation comes to a close this week, with Harry Boyte’s chapter “Constructive Politics as Public Work: Organizing the Literature.”  Like Harry, this week’s chapter leader, Wendy Willis, is an extraordinary leader in her own right — Wendy is Executive Director of the Policy Consensus Initiative and Deputy Director for Research of the National Policy Consensus Center. Wendy’s first book of poems, Blood Sisters of the Republic, will be released by Press 53 on October 1.

Chapter Summary by Wendy Willis…

It’s an honor to bat cleanup for the inaugural NCDD book club and to have the opportunity to reflect on Harry Boyte’s fine chapter on constructive politics as public work. And, really what a rangy and imaginative chapter it is!  It travels from 11th century Holland to post-genocide Rwanda, from rock star German sociologist Jürgen Habermas to the New Yorker’s George Packer, with twists and turns and stories along the way, each of them challenging us to be more ambitious in how we conceive of—and nurture—civic agency.

With his discursions amongst the various strands of active citizenship, Boyte brings to the surface a deep current of democratic theory and practice, a current that he captures in the term “public work.” As he puts it, “citizens need ways to reconstruct the world, not simply to improve its decision-making processes.” (155) And further, “public work”—and its companion concept “civic agency”—focus on “the productive, not simply [the] distributive, side of politics, including creating the commons, shared resources of a common life.” (155)

In short, he argues that democracies require citizens to co-create their shared environment and that we—we citizens—cannot wait on our sofas for either the government or the “great leader” to come along and build the world that we want to live in. And, because I had the opportunity to speak to Harry recently about his provocative work, he spelled it out very clearly: “From my vantage, deliberation is best used as a single dimension of ‘civic agency.’ It is important, but not enough to transform our institutions.”

His vision of civic work is a kind of loud, gritty and politically pragmatic version of communal labor that can be found across the world. He cites examples from Kenya and Ecuador, as well as New Mexico and Oaxaca. It most certainly is not a wan call for “voluntarism” or “community service.” It is a fully realized and active version of shared decision-making, followed by shared implementation rooted in the practical imperatives of sustaining a way of life together, across differences.

With this robust, empowered, and somewhat messy notion of citizenship, Boyte explicitly calls out the limits of deliberative politics. He questions the Habermasian theory—one that I am quite susceptible to—that institutions, including the government, are “impervious to change.” (159)  He argues that we can—and indeed must—generate new and transformative narratives for our shared visions, challenges, and institutions. We must resist stories that disempower and make invisible the work of people joined together in common purpose, and we must produce and reproduce stories that generate creativity, empowerment, and resilience.

Boyte asserts that those stories are central to reconceiving ourselves as public actors saturated with civic agency. Extrapolating from the work of John Holland on complex adaptive systems, Boyte argues that political resilience requires us to embrace and reflect, rather than reduce the world’s complexity. As he puts it, “Politics, like poetry, is partly about complex interpretative acts, concerned with meaning, purpose, justice, and even beauty… Politics adds practical concerns for getting things done in a world of plurality.” (164)

Now, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows in Boyte’s world of democracy fueled by public work. Not at all. He acknowledges that industrial specialization and the cynical use of the consumer-based model of citizenship have stunted our civic imaginations and socialized whole professions to see themselves outside a common civic life. And, he argues that the “mass politics” advanced by many progressive movements reinforces a “consumer conception of the person as concerned with individual appetites and needs.” (168)

Despite a clear-eyed explication of those challenges, Boyte asserts that there are traditional and emerging resources for us to draw on in expanding the practice of public work in self-governance, including:

  1. Historical examples of decentralized economies and decision-making;
  2. Well-tested practices of broad-based organizing;
  3. Pressure generated by complex and urgent problems; and
  4. Emerging theoretical foundations for “civic professionalism, based on the thesis that democracy is best understood as a “society,” not a government-centered system of governance, and professionals of all kinds are also “citizens,” co-creators of such a society working with fellow citizens who bring immense, often overlooked talents to the table.

Boyte observes that examples of public work are sprouting up around the world. But that those outposts of civic agency can be fragile and susceptible to sloganeering and institutional co-optation. Central to these risks is the question of how we strengthen, support and protect promising instances of public work. As Boyte probed during our conversation, he asked: “What are the places and institutions that can serve as centers of democratic power, sustainable foundations for civic agency?” Indeed. What are they? And, so I turn that question back to you, along with some others. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

  1. What are some compelling cases of civic work that you know of?  How can those models be strengthened and expanded upon?
  2. At what scale is the concept of “public work” most promising?
  3. What are the places and institutions that can serve as centers of democratic power, sustainable foundations for civic agency?
  4. How do you see—or not see—public work as a frame for empowering citizens to transform our institutions?
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  1. Garry Hesser says:

    I resonate to Harry’s emphasis on the public work and co-creation emphases that he nuances. Two realities are on my mind related to his ideas and your summary: 1) recent conversations [one-on-ones at their request] with two engaged and committed students who are basically opting out of, or, at least profess, disinterest in the upcoming political cycle and election; and 2) a stimulating book by Joseph Ellis on the FOUNDING BROTHERS: THE REVOLUTIONARY GENERATION [includes “sister” Abigail Adams, too, thanks goodness]. If our attention to “public work” and “co-creation” does not include electoral politics for ourselves and our students and being actively at the table of this messy and often repugnant process, then I feel that we are falling far short of what the founding fathers and mothers bequethed to us, as well as the democracy we have inherited.

  2. GREAT job on this chapter summary, Wendy! I love your writing style.

  3. Wendy Willis says:

    Hi, Gary. Great points. I think we have a lot to be concerned about in electoral politics, and I am glad you raised the co-creation of the American Republic as an enduring example of public work. Harry, interestingly, warns us away from a government-centered vision of political life and admonishes us to think about society building more broadly, including many more overlapping and informal networks. What do you think about that framing of the issue?

    • Garry Hesser says:

      My concern is that we not see it as an “either-or” or a binary framing and throw the “baby out with the bath”. Aren’t citizens called to invest effectively in helping co-create the political process, much as did the original framers of the Constitution in order to continue co-creating a more perfect union? Every one of them, including Abigail Adams, knew it was never done and always a responsibility to keep on keeping on, and that meant diving deeply into electoral matters, as I read FOUNDING BROTHERS. What else can a citizen in a democracy do, I keep wondering?

  4. Wendy – Great questions.

    A (for me) compelling example: Snowcrew in Boston, started in 2010.

    After a huge snowfall, an existing (face to face and online) social network, led by Joe Porcelli, deploys multiple teams drawing on 30 volunteers to dig out cars and fire hydrants at 20 sites across the Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

    And, perhaps even better, this civic agency process is ongoing in 2012, surviving a change of technology (to SeeClickFix).

    Articles on the 2010 and 2012 incarnations of Snowcrew: http://bitly.com/bundles/citizentools/3

    (Revised and reposted to circumvent the blog’s link restrictions.)

  5. Arlot Hall says:

    I will be more brief Sandy.

    1. The Occupy Movement is an example of the construction of a different public narrative that has the potential to become public work.

    2. Community based public work seems to offer the greatest potential for creating the experience of public work Boyte envisions.

    3. Library based programs in community dialogue and deliberation are one location from which public work could develop. Institutions to support the talk that leads to action may be sustainable as foundations. But it appears that one implication of Boyte’s thinking is that public work is based on new narratives of thinking about ourselves as producers — not consumers — from which action emerges. How do we create that new sense of identity?

    4. Public work seems to be more of a behavior than a frame.

    • Lucas Cioffi says:

      Arlot, in response to your #3, I think that is the key question– “Thinking about ourselves as producers — not consumers — from which action emerges. How do we create that new sense of identity?”

      I agree with you that creating a new sense of identity is the key. If someone sees the essence of their existence as connected to a social problem, then they see it as “their problem” rather than just someone else’s, and they are more likely to take responsibility for helping to solve it. The problem with political/social problems is that by their nature they affect many people so it’s hard to say “That’s my problem, and I’m going to do something about it (not just talk about it).”

      Does anyone have any good resources or thoughts about how a person’s identity/identities form and evolve? I would guess that a big part of how one’s identity forms is from the influence of how others see that person, how others want that person to be/act, and how that person wants to be perceived.

      More specifically, does anyone have any resources or thoughts about how a person assimilates a connection to a civic problem into their identity?

      • sarah read says:

        One thing that is key to developing identity is narratives. The chapter recognizes how important and powerful narratives are (see pp. 167,171). We need to talk more about the Founding Fathers and other stories of citizens effecting change and stories (many are at the local level) of citizens co-creating with government to find solutions. We lose a lot when we reduce issues to positions and ‘facts’. One thing we lose is a sense of ‘us’ and the possibilities that can come from working together. Stories speak to the imagination and help integrate information, values and emotions.

  6. Margaret Gollagher says:

    My background is in sustainability policy, and my interest in deliberative democracy relates to that. Much of what Harry Boyte says resonates with the systemic changes required to address sustainability issues. Sustainability issues are highly complex and involve value judgments. Sustainability certainly cant be achieved by sitting back waiting for a great leader – change is required from the grassroots up. One issue that intrigues me at the moment is how we address sustainability issues that do not coincide with the borders of nation states, or where the people who create a negative impact are not the ones who feel its sting. I feel strongly that deliberation is vital for sustainability, but I wonder how we can implement it to best effect in spaces where forms of nation state-type government are lacking or disconnected, such as in the international arena. Clearly, IT is already beginning to play a role in creating not only new narratives, but new politically influential ‘communities’ that don’t share the same geographical space…Questions that come to my mind include “will self-organised deliberation increasingly play a role in achieving sustainability?” and “How could we link this to government for best effect, including transformation of governance processes?”

  7. Wendy Willis says:

    Great examples, keep them coming! I’m with Margaret and wonder how public work and civic agency can help spark institutional reform, particularly at the large scale. Any ideas?

    • To pick up on Arlot’s mention and Wendy’s request for examples of public work sparking institutional reform: the Occupy movement got part of the way there, sparking the Congressional introduction of a Constitutional amendment to reform campaign finance, shifting media attention from the Federal deficit to joblessness, income inequality, and individual debt loads, and inspiring new thinking about forms of governance in the non-profit sector.

      Four articles linked here: http://bitly.com/bundles/citizentools/4

      I wonder if this is consistent with Harry Boyte’s thinking?

      • sarah read says:

        The Whitehouse open government initiative (which has not been talked about much in the media) provides some examples of government inviting citizens to be co-creators. View the dashboard at whitehouse.gov/open, or data.gov.

  8. Bev Stein says:

    Very provocative presentation by Wendy of Harry Boyte’s work. I have long been a fan of Harry’s “public work” concept and am intrigued to think about how it fits with the collaborative governance work I am now doing with Oregon Solutions. Oregon Solutions brings together people across sectors to implement projects that can’t be tackled by one sector alone. We have not framed our work as “public work” but I think it would benefit from using that lens. Sometimes our lens is one of carrying out a public sector need instead of focusing on the role of engagement together to carry out the ‘work” of society.

  9. Thanks Wendy for the great summary. Everything Harry writes about resonates with my experience that the most sustainable social change projects honor that everyone involved has something of value to contribute. For me, it’s been easier to design these kinds of efforts at the local level – and that in working side by side toward shared goals, people come to appreciate that those they originally considered as “other” have values and gifts that were previously unknown. I worry a little about his use of the word “professional” next to citizen. I understand it’s about helping citizens and community members claim their role in our shared public life — but it’s the lifting up of “professionalism” in our society that often makes our public solutions lopsided to highly technical thinking that misses the essence of a community’s heart and passion (and then we wonder why something never really took hold). There is an inadvertent exclusion of native talent because it comes in unfamiliar modes to many “professionals.” Hence, the value of the projects that enlist the community in implementation as well as decision-making — they have a better chance of tapping into the latent talents and energies that will propel us out of the self-imposed scarcity stories that are stunting our public life.

  10. Jan Inglis says:

    Thank you for the summary Wendy. This is a great chapter as it bumps up our attention to the structures in which our decision making occurs and reflects on the challenges presented by the current market-state structures. I appreciate that Boyte has brought in the material from the commons movement. Although he presents the term “public work” much of what he names is also known in other literature by the term “commons”. In fact commons theorist James Quilligan has pointed out the difficulty of the term “public” because we have assumed that governments (public) are taking care of the common good but in fact they are more in the role of sanctioning market (private) take over of commons resources.

    In response to his question” “What are the places and institutions that can serve as centers of democratic power, sustainable foundations for civic agency?” I would say that the commons movement is in early stages of designing new institutions that can operate with, but not under, the market and state. These are in the form of social charters and trusts through which people can take care of the resources that their lives depend on. This is certainly a need for deliberative processes if local and global citizens are to take up this very necessary and unvalued “work” . A specific example of an early exploration of this is happening with people surrounding the Great Lakes considering a commons form of governance.

    I also appreciated Boyt’s discussion of how we define and value “work”, and how human activity has become commodified. We certainly need to raise up the value of citizen work in sustaining their collective quality of life, since much of those efforts are lost in the narrow definitions of our classical economics. As Arlot said, the Occupy movement brought many of these questions into their narrative and into citizen’s attention. I feel those narratives need new structures to keep them going.

  11. Harry Boyte says:

    Colleagues —

    This is a rich and vitally important discussion, and I really appreciate the examples and stories.

    Let me comment on Garry Hesser’s introductory argument about the importance of not “giving up” on formal politics; and Susan Clark’s queries about professionals.

    I agree strongly about electoral politics — this is the arena where, for all the terrible corruptions and flaws, people get to debate and discussion the overall direction of communities and the society. The deliberative movement is called to think in bold and large ways, it seems to me, about how to take the basic instincts and insights — that everyone is unique, narrative, culture-making, with distinctive vantages and instincts — and translate this into a people centered citizen politics.

    The Obama campaign showed the potential, surfacing the hunger people have for “a different kind of politics” in 2008. I think our challenge is to find ways to own the politics, not give it to a candidate.

    Here are a couple of Huffington Post blogs on the point — yesterday, on the MN United campaign, which could really be a game changer:


    For sustaining foundations “a different kind of professional” — with strong civic identities — is crucial, but it’s not the conventional model of detached “expert.” It’s more professional as a builder of civic centers in the life of communities (as a young man, I saw beauticians play that role a lot in the freedom movement, which schooled me).

    It’s important to work “up stream” here, changing the knowledge politics and socialization of professionals — we need another generation of professionals whose identities are part of places, not outside. We believe “civic science” has a lot of promise here — take a look at the Get Ready Iowa Coalition launced in June:

    Harry Boyte

  12. Wendy Willis says:

    Thanks to everybody, for a great discussion. I will keep thinking about these topics as I go about my work . . .let’s keep the conversation alive in our communities and amongst ourselves!

  13. 1. One of the most notable, if not the first, example of a “fully realized and active version of shared decision-making, followed by shared implementation” was the late eighteenth century movement in Britain and the US to abolish the slave trade and ultimately slavery itself. A group of diverse professionals, religious leaders and business people used the Quaker consensus process to reach decisions about short and long term goals and the most practical ways to implement them. See Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains, Mariner Books, 2005. Their collaboration lasted decades and succeeded in changing public opinion and, over time, and not always peaceably, laws affecting an integral part of the economies of much of the world. Hochschild likens it to replacing the motor vehicle in today’s economy. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to think big about changing our current systems!

    2. Watersheds and other ecosystems or similar regional groupings seem the most promising scale for this work. Largely self sustaining economies that share physical, social and commercial networks and relationships have been advocated by politically savvy leaders like John Gardner and John Parr as the basis for successful democratic institutions and broad prosperity. They are also more likely to achieve truly sustainable outcomes through greater efficiency and well nurtured natural resources.

    3. Existing institutions can be adapted to a regional focus, as has occurred in places like Salt Lake City, Denver and Portland OR, but effective networks among them, that enable regional decisions to be made and carried out are essential, and probably should have elected representatives. Portland’s Metro is only one model for this.

    4. Enabling meaningful participation in the visioning and implementation of regional sustainable redevelopment would be the natural avenue for empowering citizens.

    • Wonderful examples. What Langdon’s reference to the Abolitionist Movement and Arlot’s to Occupy also suggest is that a challenge of these sorts of movements at scale is that they become competitors or contenders with levels of government, something elected officials may not always welcome, at first blush. And that may be particularly ticklish when it’s government paying the bills.

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