the next national service agenda

Proponents of the national civilian service programs (AmeriCorps and its relations) tend to feel that the service movement has stagnated. AmeriCorps itself was based on a series of bargains struck early in the Clinton administration. For instance, the number of volunteers was capped to satisfy labor, which was concerned about job displacement. The Clinton-era programs also had a particular rationale: moving beyond entitlement programs and providing financial help to those who worked.

Today, each existing program is associated with a particular president, which means that no future president will get a lot of glory by expanding them. (Peace Corps = JFK; VISTA = LBJ; Points of Light = Bush I; AmeriCorps = Clinton; USA Freedom Corps = Bush II.)

If one assumes that voluntary national service should be expanded substantially–and there is evidence that the programs work–then we need a new bargain, a new rationale, and a new spirit to inspire a new administration.

One argument would go like this: Young people want to serve and address problems, but they are very entrepreneurial. They don’t want to serve in government bureaucracies or pile up specialized credentials in preparation for public work. Therefore, we should give them opportunities to work together on public problems through the national service programs. These programs will be training grounds or launching pads for social entrepreneurship. But then government needs to be reformed so that it is more open, flexible, and entrepreneurial. Otherwise, the training grounds will not train for anything. To reform government, we’ll need new policies:

1. Despite a somewhat mixed performance record, charter schools certainly provide opportunities for creativity and entrepreneurship within the public sector. Could they be improved, and could a similar approach be used in other areas of public policy? For example, foreign relations and international development are crucial issues today. Could the United States Agency for International Development (AID) use a “charter school” model to run overseas development projects?

2. The No Child Left Behind Act could be amended so that communities, with substantial public participation, are permitted to create their own assessments and accountability measures.

3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are planning a national deliberation on how to respond in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak. Other agencies could use similar processes to address issues that involve serious value conflicts, thereby building genuine legitimacy.

4. AmericaSpeaks (on whose board I sit) has a detailed plan called “millions of voices” for a national deliberation on a public policy issue, using a variety of formats and methods. Congress could convene such a deliberation on an issue like climate change or health and promise to hold hearings on the results.

5. The rulemaking/regulatory process could be transformed if proposed rules were posted online in a format that allowed the public to create discussion threads and wiki-like documents.

6. Several countries have achieved enormous gains in efficiency and cut corruption by involving members of the public in auditing and monitoring government expenditures. This approach could be implemented in the US to improve the performance of schools, public health agencies, and other government programs. One tool for “public accountability” is participatory budgeting, wherein citizens are able to allocate portions of a local capital budget and then track expenditures.

7. FEMA could be required to create a process for convening broad public deliberations in the aftermath of any disaster. Then we would not only see tremendous outpourings of individual volunteerism (as in response to Katrina), but also public participation in setting policies and priorities.

8. Problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, are venues for social entrepreneurship and could be expanded.

9. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities could focus attention on collaborative, community-based projects.

10. All proposed legislation could be evaluated for its potential impact on civil society and public participation, as a kind of “civic impact statement.”

11. As proposed by Paul Light in 2004, each federal agency could have a “Citizen Liaison Office” that would review existing procedures and programs for barriers to citizen participation. (AmeriCorps members could serve in these offices.)