Should mayors rule the world?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This interesting TedTalk the brings up lots of great questions about modern democracy. I have long thought that small is better. Small units of government – decision-making and action-taking units – can access and leverage local knowledge way better than provincial, state or country wide systems. Provided of course they have a strategy or system in place to inform,  engage and empower their community.

How do mayor’s inform and engage their community?

In our connected world it’s easier than ever to get messages out and educate constituents on local issues. I did a quick Google search for “mayor’s who blog” I found that many mayors do indeed use blogs to reach out to community members, to be more accessible and through the subscribe option on many blogging platforms allow for push notifications. That kind of process makes it easier for community members to stay informed without having to remember to visit the city website.

Great example of mayor’s who blog is Mayor Karen Farbridge of Guelph Ontario. Here are the fist few lines of her first blog post in 2008:

Welcome! I decided to start a blog to encourage more dialogue about civic affairs in the community. One of the goals of our Strategic Plan is to have the highest per capita municipal election voter turnout of any city in Ontario. How do mayor’s engage their community? More…

Check out her About the Blog page. How cool is that?! It’s her blog, she makes that clear but I bet more people go to her and her blog than to their official city website. They do that because she is person. Funny thing, we people like to get information and engage with other people, even if technology is mediating the process.

I do have a question about city websites.. and the Guelph site is awesome but not an exception. How come I can’t subscribe to updates? I can subscribe by RSS but that confounds a lot of people. Why no “subscribe to” button? There are a lot of areas of interest that I would love to stay more informed around in my own city but honestly I need new information pushed to me. Let me sign up for a newsletter about X. Face i t you already publish the information so it’s not like you’d have to write anything new. You just have to get it to me. I’m not unbusy enough to easily make time to go hunt stuff down. Are you? Who has that kind of time? That is why I subscribe to blogs that have value and turn to Twitter for a lot of information.

Many a mayor and city councillor have embraced social media to communicate and engage in conversations near and dear to local citizens. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Foursquare are being using increasingly to connect with community members where they (virtually) hang out.

In the Spanish town of Jun, near Granada, Mayor José Antonio Rodríguez (@JoseantonioJun) makes local government more accessible and more accountable to its citizens through the use of Twitter.  All public offices and employees are required to have an official Twitter account, which is prominently displayed on everything from police cars and uniforms to garbage trucks. More…

I’m not going to include platforms like PlaceSpeak or VisionCritical or even the always near and dear to me Thoughtstream system in this category. That is how city hall connects, or tries to connect and gather sentiments across a city. I will say that there seems to be, in too many cases, a lack of strategy attached to the use of these kinds of tools. And yes, I could definitely say the same for the use of all other technologies. Tools are tactics, they are not strategies.

How do mayor’s empower their community?

This is the real question.. and in case you haven’t notices I’m writing this along a continuum based on the IAP2 model of citizen participation.  I recently wrote a post about this on the Thoughstream blog so will link to that rather than reinvent the whole thing here.

I think Mayor’s and by extension city councillors should rule the world. They are our best chance at  genuine participatory democracy provided they are engaging their community as a way of empowering constituents to have a voice, take part, co-create, collectively envision and change the world for the better, one city and one issue at a time. If they aren’t then they are just politicians playing a political game.

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What is community?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Jesse Lyn Stoner recently posted Does Your Organization ASPIRE?. I love her posts for many reasons. She posts about vision, values, attitudes, leadership, team building, culture, purpose, collaboration… all things I think about, read about, study, teach and promote. It’s all great stuff … and it doesn’t always scale to community. It’s Newtonian when we need Quantum.

Jesse was kind enough to reply to my short comment on her ASPIRE post. It was her reply that got me thinking about the mental models we use for “community”. This is part of Jesse’s reply,

To apply to communities, I’d suggest you could just take the description up one notch. Communities do need an aligned vision, agreement on what a healthy community looks like, in order to integrate the various programs. When we talk about “Results-focused” in business, we use the language “customer-centered results.” However in NPOs and communities, constituency could be substituted for the term customer, in this case the members of the communities.

Here’s the rub – we do tend to think of communities as being “like” organizations. They are not. As a community member I am about as far away from being a customer as possible. My city hall sees me as a customer though, so feels quite justified in acting like the owner of the business, which it is not. It has a business to run but that business is not community. This is also the mental model, or mind set, that helps community members abdicate their own responsibility for community.

Communities are networks, created and connected by relationships between people who have varied values and visions for themselves, their families and their own organizations. There is little room for a shared vision because that would by definition de-value the diversity that is present and needs to be valued more, in a health community. A community embraces a variety of values and visions and goals because it is organic, complex and adaptive in the same way a human body is. Not in the way an organization or business is.

As Peter Block would say, and Meg Wheatley would support, the role of community leaders is to craft the invitation to create something new that could not be created alone, to ask questions that lead to possibilities, not visions, and to create the conditions for genuine engagement. I know the language makes it difficult and that to some there is scant difference between vision and possibility. This is what Block says about possibilty compared to vision:

 Our typical way of creating a future is by specifying the vision, the goals and then defining a blueprint to achieve it. This is called destination strategy for solving problems… this way of thinking does indeed work for many things, especially in the material world. It does not work well with human systems or when the desire is to create something out of nothing. In fact, it is this very mindset, one based on clear definition, prediction, and measurement, that prevents anything fundamental from changing. We still believe that in building a community, we are in effect building and operating a clock. Once again, problem solving makes things better, but it cannot change the nature of things. This insight is at the center of all the thinking about complex adaptive systems, emergent design, and the organic and self-regulating nature of the universe.

I think community is like the land, like nature and like children. We have a sacred responsibility to care for, nurture and protect them but never to own them or run them like a business. We can and ought to take ownership of an experience and our choices. We need a new model.

As for programs, Block paraphrased John McKnight saying that,

… as soon as you professionalize care, you have produced an oxymoron. Systems provide services, not care.

I cringe every time I hear that we are funding yet another program rather than spend a few bucks on the genuine invitation to connect and engage. If you want to help a homeless person, invite him into your life. Take her out for lunch and make it a regular thing. Maybe even explore the possibility of taking that person home for Christmas dinner. That will make a difference. The relationship you form will make a difference.

I was at my local corner store the other day, and really this is where this post began, and I realized I lived in a community that refuses to give water to a thirsty child. I was on my way out of the store when a boy went in. He and his friends had been skateboarding in the alley behind the store, which is great because it’s relatively safe. It was a really hot day. He went into the store and asked politely if he could get a drink of water. the answer was “no”.

I didn’t think too much of it until I was almost home and then it hit me. This is the exact reason community breaks down. We become ruled by fear and then refuse a drink of water to a thirsty child. You know what the conversation was. I know you do. Boss to employee… By the way, you may get kids in here asking to use the bathroom or for a drink of water. We don’t do that. Lord knows what would happen if we encouraged that. We’d be over run with kids asking to pee or have drink of water. Sure as shooting they’d abuse it, probably steal stuff too. Flash forward, 10 years from now and that child is at a crossroad and he unconsciously replays his life, who’s helped him, who’s not helped him. It may be subtle but that’s how decisions are made, by the total of all our experiences. His judgement may become that store owners are not friendly or supportive. It’s that kind of thinking that breaks community.

We need a new way of looking at community, of understanding and co-creating community. A way that integrates the idea of creating possibility from relationships rather that visions to solve problems. I think folks like Peter Block, John McKnight and Margaret Wheatley are helping define the language and carve out the space for the conversation about this.



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