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August 10, 2009

building public capacity

At last week's meetings in Washington, about 100 proponents of democratic reform, representing several different traditions and flavors, came together to develop a common agenda that was welcomed by the White House as advice. I was one of a fairly substantial minority that put the development of civic skills on the agenda. It occurs to me that civic skill-development is the defining goal of my own work and of the main organizations I work for, CIRCLE and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

Skill- or capacity-development is always a central purpose and outcome of admirable popular movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, or the Labor Party in Brazil. The need for skills--as well as confidence and knowledge--is very obvious when one works with disadvantaged people. In contrast, good-government reformers tend to focus on procedural changes and may overlook the need for people to change in their minds and hearts.

I worked for two years for Common Cause and remain a strong supporter of theirs (and of the League of Women Voters, of which I am a member). I agree with them that it's essential to reform the rules of campaign finance, legislative districting, and the Senate. But there is a reason this is a middle-class agenda. Although procedural reforms would disproportionately benefit low-income people, low-income people are not likely to fight for such reforms or use the new rules to their advantage. These matters are too abstract and distant to engage without specialized skills. (But working-class people have other skills that they can use effectively in social movements.)

At CIRCLE, we study how young people develop the skills they need to be effective citizens. At Tisch College, we teach such skills and are becoming increasingly deliberate about selecting the important skills and developing appropriate curricula. These are just two examples of initiatives underway in civil society.

For the government, I would recommend the following agenda:

August 10, 2009 12:50 PM | category: none


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