Monthly Archives: November 2008

citizens in the economic recovery plan

On Monday, I made a general argument for putting citizens to work (as citizens) on public problems. I had previously argued that this approach would change the relationship between citizens and government from the dysfunctional relationship under George W. Bush and from the relationship of the Clinton years, when government was presented as a helper to relatively passive individuals.

It’s worth thinking about this philosophical shift in relation to our most urgent immediate problem: economic recovery. The Bush bailout and stimulus efforts have involved almost no accountability or transparency. The money has not been directed to ordinary Americans or used for important public purposes. We can do much better by combining Barack Obama’s call for “service and active citizenship” with his economic recovery plan.

In policy terms, putting citizens to work on economic recovery means:

  • Passing and fully funding the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act (which Senator Obama cosponsored) as a contribution to the economic recovery
  • Enlisting citizens to provide guidance and accountability when public money is used for the economic recovery. Tools for participation can include:
    • Public deliberations at the local level about priorities for spending
    • Citizens’ review panels that complement (not replace) professional oversight by government auditors
    • Web-based tools to disclose details about spending and invite public discussion and input
    • Civil servants supporting such work by citizens as part of their job descriptions
  • Creating jobs programs within various agencies and policy domains that involve the participants in planning and learning. HUD already funds YouthBuild to construct houses and teach civic skills. This is a model for other agencies.
  • Civil service reform to make public sector jobs more attractive to younger people and to promote partnerships between agencies and non-governmental groups.
  • A renewed focus on civic education in k-12 schools, colleges, and youth employment programs, so that young people learn how to discuss and analyze public problems as part of their preparation for the work world.

mapping Boston’s civil society

We’re busy mapping Boston. Students place nodes that represent people, ideas, or organizations on a blank plane. Each node stores data, such as contact information, goals, activities, and geographical locations. Connections among nodes represent real collaborations. The data can be shown in lots of ways–on a geospatial map, as a network diagram with various center-points, as a list of search results. Ultimately, this software will be an application for Facebook and MySpace, making it easy for people to add or use data . For now, we have a standalone website.

Here’s a screenshot from today. This represents the work of just a few Tufts undergrads over a couple of weeks. We’re already working with students at UMass Boston and will be expanding beyond those campuses in the spring. The software is also capable of automatically harvesting organizations and links from the Web and pasting them here to be analyzed by human beings.


  • Recruiting people and organizations. One can search for individuals who are connected, even indirectly, to a given issue and then ask them to participate in events or projects.
  • Finding opportunities. One can search for places to volunteer, give money, or organize politically. The search can be by key-word. More interesting is to search for organizations that are linked to other organizations.
  • Analysis and deliberation. One can link two issues together, or link an issue to an organization, and then debate the connection. Is homelessness worsened by zoning? That hypothetical connection can be discussed on the map itself.
  • Broadening sources. Journalists, government agencies, foundations, and researchers tend to ask the same people for information and opinions. They often rely on formal credentials as evidence of knowledge. The network map can lead them to overlooked citizens who are useful sources because of the social roles they play.
  • Investigations. One can look for inappropriate or problematic connections, or lack of connections.

Issues that students have brought up so far:

  • Privacy: Whose information should go on the map, and who decides that?
  • Chilling effects: Would people be discouraged from linking to controversial organizations and causes if their links could be mapped?
  • Spam and other bad stuff: Inappropriate content can be added to the map
  • Marketing: Instead of recruiting volunteers or activists for a social cause, a company could use the map to find influential customers.
  • Sustainability: It’s fun for me and my colleagues to build the map. But other people who contribute need to know that it will still be there (and kept current) in five years.
  • Limits: This is a Boston area map. That geographical definition gives it useful density. But Darfur could belong on the map, since Boston-area students work on Darfur. Former Bostonians could place themselves on the map. Is there any point to a geographical limit?

work, not service

Candidate Barack Obama, July 2:

    “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program—this will be a central cause of my presidency.”

President Elect Barack Obama, Nov. 22:

    “We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

These two statements seemed to be about different topics. The first was an argument for increasing the number of federally-funded civilian “service” slots to as many as 250,000; the second announced a plan to create or save 2.5 million full-time jobs, mostly in the private sector. The first makes us think of unpaid volunteering or short-term, low-paid positions in nonprofits and government agencies. The second conjures images of permanent, salaried employees in labs or on corporate assembly lines. “Service” is about personal values: patriotism, civic virtue, caring, or helping–a “thousand points of light.” Job programs are about macroeconomic growth and take-home pay for hard-working Americans.

I think the two ideas should be combined, and “work,” not “service,” should be the hallmark of “active citizenship” in the Obama Administration. I have never been very enthusiastic about service on its own. It is marginal–a lower priority than one’s job or family, something to do after work, on special occasions, or during adolescence or retirement. People involved in service tend to be congratulated and thanked regardless of their impact, whereas workers are expected to get the job done. Service makes the recipients look weak and needy, whereas work is an exchange for mutual benefit.

Service programs, such as Americorps, can certainly be great for the volunteers and the community. But that is because they provide work, albeit with a strong and commendable element of civic education for the workers. Meanwhile, a full-time, paid job in the private sector can also be “active citizenship,” if we allow, support, and encourage the employees to work on public problems (such as modernizing schools or building wind farms).

As I wrote here recently, the Obama Administration can restore a New Deal version of liberalism whose central task is to put people to work for the public good. Private sector jobs are part of that, especially if federal subsidies, incentives, or mandates steer these jobs toward public purposes. Public sector careers at every level, military service, and civilian service programs such as Americorps are also important. So is an educational system that prepares people for public work. Students will need a strong dose of civic education so that they can discuss and define the public problems that they choose to address as workers. It is not enough to prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market; they also need to shape that market for public purposes.

I would admire this form of liberalism at any time, because of its ethical conception of the citizen as an active, creative agent. But today seems an especially appropriate moment to bring back the New Deal conception. We need jobs programs for standard economic reasons; and our newly elected president has pledged to make “active citizenship … a central cause.”

losing one’s past

    “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged–the same house, the same people–and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

I have a different problem. I feel my past shifting from personal memory into objective history and thereby ceasing to be fully mine.

When I was a little boy, the 1940s seemed an entirely different epoch. It was the lost world of my parents’ youth, of FDR on the radio, genocide, jazz, Marines on Iwo Jima. It was black-and-white, sad, and dignified. But now the decade of my childhood, the 1970s, is closer to the Roosevelt Administration than it is to the present.

I presume that when I walked down the streets of London or Syracuse, NY, holding a parent’s hand, I did not especially notice the wide lapels, mutton-chop sideburns, punk graffiti, decaying American downtowns, and leftover Blitz bomb-sites that characterized that era. I probably focused on the perennials of childhood: cracks in the sidewalk, low walls for walking on, crunchy leaves or splashy puddles, food smells and parents’ voices. But now I can remember hardly anything from a first-person perspective. Instead, I see myself from the outside, a representative of the period, shot in lurid Kodachrome like a used album cover. The image is historical, long-gone, much more like the newsreel footage of 1945 than the real world of today.