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July 24, 2009

assessing the Obama civic agenda after 6 months

We had a panel discussion today at the Tisch College of Citizenship that was taped by C-SPAN for broadcast sometime in August. Our "text" was then-candidate Barack Obama's statement in 2007: "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 program; this will be a central cause of my presidency." Our questions were: What did this statement mean? What should it mean? How is the administration doing so far? What has to happen next? What should we do from outside?

The panelists were Alan D. Solomont, Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service; Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship (videconferenced from Johannesburg); Archon Fung, Harvard University; Marshall Ganz, Harvard; Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, AmericaSpeaks; Xolela Mangcu, University of Johannesburg; and Carmen Sirianni, Brandeis University.

The discussion was rich, diverse, and spirited--in fact, passionate. Any summary is a bit presumptuous (and I didn't take notes, since I was moderating). But I think I detect something like a consensus that the Administration has moved far in some respects, and hardly at all--as yet--in others. The service agenda has moved very far, with the potential tripling of AmeriCorps. If that expansion is implemented well, it will generate not just philanthropic service, but also opportunities for diverse people to work on crucial public problems and learn skills. The transparency agenda has also moved along; we will have better access to more information about the government than ever before. (But we may not have more information about big private corporations; and the information about government may only be used for "gotcha" games.) Finally, the president has used his global podium to speak profoundly about active citizenship, from Los Angeles to Ghana.

But little has been done (or even proposed) to reform the administrative apparatus of the federal government or the legislative process to promote constructive civic engagement, to create conversations that bridge differences, or to invest in the development of civic skills.

This public panel was the final episode in our Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which was otherwise an intense graduate seminar. I did not think that the appearance in our seminar room of television cameras, lights, and a live audience reduced the candor or authenticity of the discussion at all. I thought it was a fitting conclusion to the 54 hours of private discussion that had preceded it.

July 24, 2009 6:13 PM | category: none


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