Review: Democracy as Problem Solving – Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe

4 Star, Democracy, Public Administration
Amazon Page

Xavier N. De Souza Briggs

4.0 out of 5 stars 5 for Academics, 4 for Isolation from Corruption, June 25, 2011

I am stunned to not see a review of this book published in 2008. It certainly merits attention and inclusion in any dialog about democracy.

The author caught my attention immediately in the preface, observing that US democracy “looks awfully stunted and stymied.”

The author does a first rate job of summarizing the book in advance, the core focus being on democracy as civic capacity.

QUOTE (ix): “This blurring of the traditional divide between direction setting (policy making) and outcomes (implementation) is at the heart of the story…”

I am less interested in the case studies (urban growth, restructuring economy, and investing in youth), and much more interested in the author’s concise presentation of his findings.

As others have been perceiving for some years, the author focuses on the dramatic change in democracy in practice–it is no longer about shaping public policy through lobbying. Instead is is about blending community agenda setting, strategy making, and productive action in a host of innovation ways.

This book is a perfect complement to the other book I read with it and also review, Planning with Complexity: An Introduction to Collaborative Rationality for Public Policy, and I recommend both of them to anyone interested in the end of Epoch A governance and the emergence of Epoch B (hybrid) governance.

I was hoping to see more about information in this book, but it has the common strong focus on collective action and dialog and does not plot the sources and methods for creating decision-support.

The quick overview of scholarship paths is appreciated:

01. Democracy as contest among interest groups (this is where my long-running annoyance with failure to address corruption comes in).

02. Democracy as instrument for deliberation (never mind that only the top 1% get to manipulate the deliberation)

03. Under-developed: John Dewey’s original premise of democracy as a fulfillment of community life. The author cites Dewey as warning that collective efficacy would not scale–the public becomes fragmented and distracted. The author also cites Robert Sampson on the term “collective efficacy.”

On point 03, George Soro’s recent essay is a MUST READ, see my review of The Philanthropy of George Soros: Building Open Societies.

It also merits comment that Dewey is a constant presence in the other book, so I resolved to include his 1927 work in both my reviews: Public & Its Problems.

Two early quotes that capture the general idea:

QUOTE (10): “The public interest work of societies has been radically reshaped in less than a generation, with widespread loss of trust in public institutions and expert-led bureaucratic approaches, a massive decentralization of decision-making ‘downward’ to local governments and ‘outward’ to private and nonprofit contractors, the rapid transformation of civil society organizations and networks of innovation that span the globe, the diffusion of ’empowerment’ as an antihierearchical organizing principle for society, and more.”

Of course Jonas Salks was there decades ago, and J. F. Rishard nailed the whole hybrid idea in High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.

QUOTE (12): “Breakthrough problem solving in democratic societies calls for more multidimensional forms of accountability, and more practiced, skillful combinations of learning and bargaining by civic actors, than most contemporary rhetoric about ‘acting in partnership’ or ‘bottom-up’ change has even hinted.”

See all of my work for the “eight tribes” of information-sharing: academic, civil society, commerce, government, law enforcement, media, military, and non-governmental/non-profit.

Three concepts do appear in the index and throughout: elite-driven versus community-driven, trust-building as a core element, and soft power (not citing Joe Nye), and legitimacy. On the latter, see Dr. Col Max Manwaring’s edited work, The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, which gives me the opportunity to beat a drum I have been on for a long time: the USA needs to master and apply precisely the same principles of transparency, truth, and trust for multinational relations as it does for state and local relations. That will not happen as long as we have a two-party tyranny that has prostituted itself to Wall Street and the top 1% concentrating wealth.

QUOTE (40): “First, the proverbial ‘two heads’ can be, through they are not always, better than one. Managed well and those are the key words), inclusionary groups and processes, which blend different sources of knowledge and disseminate knowledge too, can generate better, more actionable ideas than top-down, exclusionary, technocratic planning.”

QUOTE (41): “Second, wider and better structured participation may enable coproduction” generating knowledge and commitment to drive private and nongovernmental action, not just government action, and the blending of actions by these sectors to produce a meaningful impact on public problems.

ROughly at this point I recognize that the book was conceptualized and written before the literature on digital natives, Generation 2.0, and Web 4.0.

The conclusion is well worth the price of the book and I find it most useful.

01. “Expert” model is NOT WORKING.

02. QUOTE (297): The most pressing problems of our day call for collective learning and bargaining, as well as mechanisms of accountability, that go well beyond the recipe of free and competitive elections through which citizens in democratic societies are supposed to ‘steer’ government.”

03. Six lessons have been learned, the most important of which, for me, is #4, and I quote “Combining learning and bargaining is an ongoing, not one-time, requirement, for which formal as well as informal civic space matters.”

A very nice table is provided on page 314 that persuades me that the USA today is suffering from the worst possible combination: an incompetent democracy AND an incompetent autocracy. (Actually, they know what they are doing, looting the USA, but they may not have calculated the longer term costs of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs–the middle class and senior blue collar class.

CORE FINDING: The public is miles ahead of the politicians. This comes across over and over. What is NOT clear is why the public has not yet recognized what Howard Zinn, Vaclav Havel, and Jonathan Schell have all documented so ably, and here I list their books:

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
The Power of the Powerless (Routledge Revivals): Citizens Against the State in Central-eastern Europe
The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People

Instead, we have:
The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead
Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

Vote and/or Comment on Review