ON THE AGENDA | APRIL 14TH, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Flying Below the Radar: Making Local Progress in Spite of National Dysfunction

In cities big and small, where most people live and work, the ability of residents and officials to solve problems has not abated and may actually have picked up.

First published in The Huffington Post on April 14, 2016.


If you haven't read James Fallows' chronicle of local progress in The Atlantic, do yourself a favor and click over to read it when you're done here.

In it, Fallows writes about his small-plane travels to four dozen small cities throughout the U.S. Through his journey, we discover an alternate narrative of America, one celebrating the power of local determination, democracy and problem solving.

Nationally, we are utterly incapable of collaboration, compromise or making any progress on solving problems. The very rare exceptions only make the dominant pattern more visible.

Yet in cities big and small, where most people live and work, the ability of residents and officials to solve problems has not abated and may actually have picked up.

I would add this observation to Fallows' encouraging chronicle: There are two distinct strategies and styles evident in many local success stories. One is a more technocratic, top-down, data-driven, often tech-enabled approach. The other is more deliberative and democratic, centered on civic engagement and community empowerment. Both have their strengths and can help address different classes of problems or different aspects of the same problem.

Top-down, technocratic problem solving can be good for technical problems. For example, it can identify where the potholes are, and how to speed up response time to a 911 call.

In New York, for instance, the former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a master of technocratic, top-down problem solving, and for many types of problems that worked very well-- but not for all. It created an efficient 311 system that serves citizens well, and strengthened New York's anti-terrorism capabilities. But technocratic attempts to improve schools and police-community relations through corporate approaches of measurement and accountability fell flat and, in many instances, were counterproductive.

There are no purely technocratic fixes for many problems cities face, including poverty, inequality, educational disparities or diminishing opportunity. Such "wicked problems" (as the literature sometimes calls them) prove amazingly resistant to purely top-down solutions.

Instead, such problems require ongoing attention from many disparate actors, durable public support so experiments can prove themselves and blossom into policies and practices that drive progress, and tough choices among competing priorities about how we want to live.

Solutions to such problems can be data-informed but not data-determined because they are, to a very great extent, matters of values, priorities and the trade-offs we are willing to accept as a community. Do the pros outweigh the cons of a much higher minimum wage? Are we willing to experiment to find out? Should we permit bigger buildings in historic neighborhoods if doing so will make rents more affordable? If not, what measures should we take instead? Are we willing to provide the resources to ensure that all schools have adequate and safe facilities and well-trained teachers, or not? If so, how?

This is fertile ground for deliberative democratic work, and in fact that's the only approach that will bear fruit in the long term. In his most compelling examples of renewal and progress, Fallows feature cities where many different groups of people -- experts and non-experts, officials and everyday residents, conservatives and liberals -- work together on solutions.

As technocratic approaches reach their limit, we have the opportunity to help cities make progress on their more wicked problems. We can do so by engaging and empowering communities, building the public will needed to sustain sound policy, developing strong lines of communication, and by celebrating our successes rather than wallowing in our failures.


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