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Citizenship Is More Than Volunteerism and More than Gotcha

BY Allison Fine | Monday, November 24 2008

Election Day seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it? There was the great exultation that at long last a new day was here in America. Hope had returned, but just for an instant, as the economy kept going down, down, down and the inevitable "now what?" questions arose. Eight years of pent up frustration have come pouring forth from Deaniacs and Obamanics who poured their hearts and souls into two campaign cycles and now, at last, the kingdom is theirs.

So what to do when there is no clear Election Day deadline or structure to keep us focused? Naturally, a phalanx of well meaning efforts have sprung up from Obama CTO to Change.gov. All chaotic, cacophonous, well meaning efforts that will inevitably add up to nothing.

Oh, the sacrilege of criticizing well meaning crowd sourcing!! Shouldn't citizens be allowed, nay encouraged!, to throw do-goody ideas against the wall so that we can then all vote on them and then . . . and then . .. well, somebody should do something, right? These well-meaning, misguided efforts have fallen into two categories:

1. The Confusion of Service Category. The discussion of using a Craigslist approach to scaling up service, as my friend Nancy Scola outlines rightly points out is not very helpful if it's just more of the same. The notions of increasing voluntary, community service as the solution to government not working right needs to end. I have written about this morphing of public and private service before, most recently here and the basic premise of my argument still holds. Americans have increasingly been volunteering (particularly young people who are required to do so in school and are continuing to do so beyond school), the number of nonprofits has exploded in the past twenty years and yet problems abound. That is because the size of government far overshadows the size of volunteer efforts in terms of resources. Peter Levine compared philanthropic dollars to government dollars for Katrina repair and you will see the difference, $6.5 billion in private philanthropic dollars, nothing to sneeze at, but compared to $120.5 billion in government aid. So, more volunteer databases are not what we need to strengthen the civic infrastructure of the country and overhaul our government.
2. The second category are the idea generating sites that are automatically set up as an "us vs. them" paradigm to help the Obama administration "set priorities". Ah, yes, we are going to tell you what we think you should do -- as if we haven't just had that conversation over an exhausting marathon of an election -- and then we're going to hold your feet to the fire by stomping our feet and holding our breath until you do. Or just as bad, we, the Obama campaign, are going to "listen" to you as you fill out a survey (oy!) and then we'll . . . well, we'll say that we listened to you.

I know I am verging on curmudgeonly, really I do, but I want to make a point, that is that we need to get focused and constructive before we look up and it's April and all we have are millions of frustrated people who are feeling left out. This election was about transforming government, not just encouraging people to volunteer more. (Oh, and btw, I don't buy the idea that because Obama has a large mailing list its the same as a constituency, it's a mailng list of people who were involved, not a list of people who have signed up for the next phase of the journey - big, big difference that campaigns and nonprofits need to understand much better.)

So, here's my plan of action:

1. The focus has to be on changing government to include citizen participation. In many of the essays in Rebooting America, essayists wrote that the relationship between the governing class and the governed has to change. As Jeff Jarvis wrote, "Today the default in our discussion of government is negative: they are doing bad things badly, and we are the watchdog who’ll catch the bastards in the act.” The fundamental premise of this election was that the old Reagan adage that government is the problem is dead. Our government needs us to help it to govern. The advocacy models of the 1960s were created to protests against government; we need a new model of advocacy that helps us to participate in government. So, the question changes from, "What do we want government to do?" to "How are we going to participate in running our government."
2. Continue the training. One of the most successful elements of the Obama campaign was training local organizers. Now we need to educate and train people on what government does. We are starting from scratch, young people aren't being taught about government in school, older people, if they ever knew, have become caught in the gotcha game described above. We should set a date of say, January 3rd and 4th and use Meetup.com to get everyone go to your local library for a seminar on the fundamentals of government; local, state and federal. How does it work, what does it do, how can we participate?
3. Start local today. One of the dangers of the "throw an idea up against the wall" strategy is that the ideas tend to be too big ("alleviate global poverty") and too hard for individuals to participate in tackling (not that you can't participate, go give $25 on Kiva today and you'll feel better.) Let's make a national to-do list for transforming local government, someplace where we really can make a huge difference right now, today, if we show up and participate. Steve Clift gets us started here. Run for office, go to planning board meetings, ask your town supervisor to start blogging and post the budget online (and keep it updated in real-time!), promote local businesses, revamp the outdated recycling program.

Start, now, today, make a huge difference by transforming advocacy and government for the 21st century -- this is the change that we need.