There’s a vast change underway in how local governments relate to their citizens, as governments move from being providers to partners. Almost everywhere you turn, you see this shift. Here are three examples:
- The rise of business improvement districts. I’ve heard former mayors who served in the 1960s and 1970s talk about how shocked they were to learn that businesses would voluntarily raise their taxes in order to improve their surroundings. And yet, by the 1990s the BIDs were everywhere. The original idea was to take over services that cities could no longer afford (like cleaning up graffiti and planting trees), but BIDs have grown into surprisingly effective planning organizations as well.
- The vast expansion of public-private partnerships. Cities have been creating public-private partnerships for decades; it’s how stadiums and civic centers were built in the 1980s and economic development programs were funded. But we’re now into partnerships that couldn’t have been imagined even a decade ago, like building toll lanes on highways and privatizing downtown parking meters. Some of these ventures will prove to be bad ideas, but they demonstrate how far you can go in marrying profit motives with public purposes.
- The arrival of philanthropy in government services. Again, this is the sort of thing that leaves former mayors shaking their heads, but cities everywhere are turning to non-profits and foundations to fund—and manage—public assets. Name a major municipal service area that touches the lives of citizens, and you’ll likely find philanthropy at work, from park conservancies and public land trusts to police and library foundations. I haven’t seen donors lining up to support solid waste, but surely it can’t be too far off.
I could go on and on—there are many examples—but the shift is undeniable and the implications are clear: Governments no longer “own” local problems; they “share” community problems with others. And as you move from owning to sharing, new skills are required of government leaders: that they be able to identify others to share the burden, and that they be able to work as partners and not directors. And for that, they must learn patience and restraint, and this is much, much harder than you might think.
I’ll talk about restraint shortly, but first a bit more about the great role shift. I ran across a good description of the change in a report by a group called PACE, which stands for Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. In it, the city manager of Ventura, Calif., Rick Cole, said the difference was between a vending machine and a barn raising:
“With a vending machine, you put your money in and get services out,” says Cole, a former alternative newspaper publisher and mayor in Pasadena. “When government doesn’t deliver, they do what people do when a vending machine doesn’t deliver,” says Cole. “They kick it.”
“The more useful metaphor,” he adds, “is the barn raising. It’s not a transaction, where I pay you to do work on my behalf, but a collaborative process where we are working together. Government works better and costs less when citizens do more than simply choose or ratify representative decision makers.”
Which are the next great barns to be raised? There are two areas where governments will make great partnership strides in the future. First is in neighborhood improvements; second is in bringing volunteers inside local governments.
With neighborhoods, this means letting residents take the lead in listing and prioritizing their needs, and insisting they take a major role in providing the solutions. I know, I know. We’ve tried for decades to find a workable model for neighborhood involvement without much success. But that’s because we’ve only done the first of these two things—we’ve asked people what they want and haven’t insisted they share the burden. To use Rick Cole’s metaphor, we’ve let people describe the soft drinks they want and the price they’d like to pay (essentially nothing), and when local governments failed to deliver, we’ve watched them kick the vending machines. We need them to grab a hammer and start raising the barn.
I’ll write in the future about the idea of volunteers in government. I know it sounds far-fetched, but I would point out that we already have volunteers in a range of government work, from volunteer firefighters and parents who help out in classrooms to volunteer librarians. (Next time you’re at your public library, ask the librarian to point out who works there for free.) Governments haven’t learned to ask for volunteers, but when they do, they’ll be surprised how many step forward. Here’s the key, though: They can’t manage volunteers like employees. So add to the list of skills governments must learn things like volunteer training, motivation and coordination.
Final thought: I first saw a local government acting as partner and not provider in 1994 when I wrote a magazine article about a South Florida city called Delray Beach. (You can read the entire article here.) The key to change in Delray Beach was a mayor, Tom Lynch, and a city council that had learned to be a dependable partner without becoming a dominating presence. Here’s a glimpse of how restraint works:
When a problem becomes apparent, civic leaders help the people most affected organize themselves to study it and come up with solutions. When the citizens arrive at some solutions, the city offers to be part—but only part—of the resolution. The group that’s most affected must accept the bulk of the responsibility.
It’s in this constant tension over responsibility—is everyone doing his part to solve this problem?—that Delray Beach generates both solutions and leadership. No one looks to city hall to figure out what to do or even to do it once it’s figured out. But they do keep close watch to be sure the city, the business community and non-profits live up to their ends of the bargain.
City hall is willing to “facilitate” the problem-solving process, help find resources and take some of the responsibility when the solution is arrived at. But it won’t tell people what to do or take on the work for them. As Mayor Lynch explains, “If someone comes to us with a problem, our role isn’t to solve the problem but to connect them with other people who can help them solve their problem.”
A decade and a half ago, I was amazed by this approach and even more by its results: not only a popular and well-managed local government in a city that had turned itself around—but a much happier citizenry as well. It turned out that, in Delray Beach, people preferred being partners to constituents. Come to think of it, they probably would have enjoyed barn raisings to vending machines, too.
Photo by Load Stone licensed under Creative Commons.