Conservatives assert that government aid is inefficient because key decisions are made through a cumbersome bureaucracy . Progressives assert that professionally – managed government programs are necessary to actually address the needs of the population.
Neither of these are right. We need a new approach.
We have pretty conclusive evidence from the last two decades that trickle-down economics don’t work (thanks, Kansas) and plenty of evidence that private philanthropy has not stepped in to fill the cuts in social service support as public support has been slashed — or create the promised, new, more effective ways to address those needs once and for all)
But go back 40, 50, 60 years, and you can see the unintended consequences of the other model (hindsight being the benefit that it is).
Stable minority-driven economies and communities decimated by the interstate highway program? “Modern” affordable housing that exacerbated and embedded the most crippling effects of poverty? Flood controls that destroyed fish populations – and often made flooding worse?
When you put on a longer lens, government-driven solutions don’t often have a great track record, either.
We talk, sometimes, about the tactical reasons why one program or another created the consequences we didn’t want. Policy and urban planning classes post-mortem old designs and programs, and urban sociologists lay out the causes and effects of generational poverty or disinvestment like the skeleton of an extinct life form.
But we very, very seldom confront the deeper assumption, the core assumptions, that laid the foundation for those mistakes and oversights and generation-to-generation damage.
And by not confronting those, we fool ourselves into thinking that we will not make similar mistakes the next time around.
And we fail to see how the conservative errors are coming from the same basic assumption.
The assumption is this: Because I have a degree / money /success / power, I know more than the people who will be impacted.
I/we can solve this for them. I/we can fix them.
This is our core error, and the one that we can see in ourselves the least.
We assume, we believe without realizing that we believe it, that our expertise gives us all of the answers. That our designs on paper can capture every need and every reality. That we can fully, comprehensively, exhaustively understand a design or policy challenge. Sure, we’ll do some public meetings, but those are to keep them informed and placated. And if we do ask for their ideas, we will run them through the thick, fine-grained sieve of our own perspective and assumptions and experience. Maybe a couple of bits will leak out in the end. Maybe not.
We fail, over and over and over again, to engage their eyes, their hearts, their experiences, not to check a public engagement box or avoid a media fight, but to see what we don’t see. To understand what we aren’t understanding. To call out to us the mental boxes that we have blocked ourselves into, and show us legitimately new opportunities.
That new insight, new understanding, new opportunities are the things we need most.
This won’t happen just by opening a room, or holding an open mic meeting. We’ve created too much bad blood, enabled too much bad behavior and distrust. On all sides.
Instead, we have to intentionally, consistently, concertedly create a new model, a new set of approaches and methods and expectations, that equips us to plan and solve with, not for the communities we care about.
That’s not un-doable. But it requires a very new set of skills. More importantly, it requires a new approach, a new set of fundamental assumptions.
A new start.
If you want to explore more about the fundamentals of community change, check out The Local Economy Revolution. If you want a step-by-step process for doing this kind of public engagement, take a look at Crowdsourcing Wisdom. And if you’re interested in how we can leverage an inclusive approach to increase economic innovation, sign up for news about the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here.
For help inclusively innovating your plan, agency or community, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.