citizens at work: how small groups address large-scale problems

(Orlando) I am on my way home from a meeting of the Florida Partnership for Civic Learning. I’d like to argue that it exemplifies citizens’ work. To be sure, it has a specific mission: improving civic education in Florida’s k-12 schools. And it enlists a specific kind of person: professionals in k12 schools, ed schools, and state agencies, all of whom participate in the effort as part of their jobs. It thus differs in significant ways from a group of miners forming a union or volunteers fixing a neighborhood park. (I can spot k12 teachers and ed-school professors from 500 yards away, due to some ineffable mix of demographics, fashion/accessories, and ways of navigating the physical world). Still, the essential features of this group would apply to different issues and different people.

Using the terms I summarize in this 10-minute video, groups of effective citizens seriously ask the question, “What should we do?” That question implies a deep consideration of values, of facts and constraints, and of strategies. The group not only discusses (deliberates), but also takes collective action (collaborates) and learns from the results of its own actions. Finally, it is attentive to relationships both within the group and with outsiders. It specifically promotes civic relationships, which imply certain values–such as mutual respect and accountability–without relying on personal friendships or financial ties. Because the fundamental question is “What we should do (about some large question)?” the group is satisfied neither with just doing something by itself that has limited effects nor with wishing or hoping that someone else acts. It finds leverage over larger systems.

Without going into details about the Florida Partnership or its current work, I would argue that it embodies all the key words in the previous paragraph. The question for the Partnership is “What should we do to improve civic learning for all Florida students?” The main value-questions include: “What is important for a citizen to learn and know?”, “What rights/obligations do schools have to educate citizens?” and “What constitutes just outcomes for the population of students across the state?” Participants discuss extensive factual information: 7th grade civics test scores for every student in the state, detailed survey data on students’ values and behaviors, and information on the effectiveness of various programs. At this particular meeting, we looked at regression models that predicted test scores, elaborate maps of schools that surpassed expectations, toplines from surveys, and qualitative reports from some of those schools. Participants spent time building relationships among themselves and with other actors. Finally, the group considered a whole range of strategies, from working with elementary reading organizations to changing course requirements in state colleges.

Nothing is perfect, but I think we did a good job of avoiding these classic pitfalls:

  1. Turning everything into a communications problem, a problem of “getting the word out.” In an era of constant marketing and propaganda, it seems to come as second nature to focus on “messaging.” But rarely is the main problem that lots of people believe the wrong things. And even when they do, communicating is challenging in a very crowded media environment. Smart groups communicate as they need to but don’t overemphasize its importance.
  2. Imagining phantom agents. It’s a constant temptation to imagine–or hope–that someone else will solve a problem. Someone else’s actions may indeed be essential. For instance, it may take the state legislature to improve civics. But then the question becomes: How can we influence the legislature? The “we” has to be concrete and real: an actual list of individuals who know what to do next. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
  3. Oscillating between the trivial and the utopian. I have often observed groups jump back and forth between the ends of a spectrum of practicality. At one moment, they will convince themselves that a given problem cannot be solved without changing the whole political/economic system. At another moment, they will talk about making one presentation at someone else’s small-scale meeting. To make a substantial difference, you have to find space between those extremes.
  4. Operating at only one level of power. According to the train of thinking inaugurated by Steven Lukes and John Gaventa in the 1970s, power operates at several levels. There is explicit power: the power to do something (such as require a statewide civics test or grade an individual kid). There is the power to set agendas. There is power over other people’s preferences and values. And there is power to affect who uses the other forms of power. Truly effective citizen groups think at all these levels.
  5. Losing the moral questions in data. We have civics test scores for every 7th grader in Florida, and my colleagues have analyzed those data in several illuminating ways (geospatially, demographically, even qualitatively). But it is fundamentally a moral question what to measure on a 7th grade civics test. It is also a moral question whether the state should test students, and what consequences should follow from success or failure on a test. Finally, given a distribution of real test scores, it is a moral question what to do next. Should you devote all your resources to serving the lowest-scorers? Raise the median? Reward the high-scorers? In an age of positivism, we tend to be better at analyzing the data than at reasoning about what the data imply morally. But good groups hold philosophically diverse and productive explicit discussions of the moral issues.
  6. Losing sight of either the short-term or the long-term. Really effective citizen groups achieve short-term victories with an eye to building momentum and winning longer-term victories later. The two mistakes to avoid are looking only for easy “wins” that don’t create momentum or working directly on long-term problems without having enough people or money to sustain the effort.