Tom Atlee: Co-Intelligent Politics

Access, Crowd-Sourcing, Design, P2P / Panarchy, Politics
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Written first in 1997, posted in 2003, revised in 2008.

The story of Pat and Pat, the view from the year 2020

Compiled from an interview done in September 2020:

…an imagineering exploration…

I'm Patrick McFallow. Four years ago my wife Patricia and I were elected Mayor of Threshold, Iowa, a city of 18,000 near Iowa City. Our names made it easy to become America's first partnership mayor. All our posters and ads said, simply, “Vote for Pat McFallow.” In the TV ads, I'd say “I'm Pat McFallow,” and then give my pitch. Then Patricia would come on and say “I'm Pat McFallow,” and give HER pitch. Then the camera would show us together working with citizens' groups and holding children, with the voiceover, “Vote for Pat McFallow.” It was great fun.

I got my PhD in Integrated Human Systems (IHS) from University of Northern Iowa in 2010, the year of the big riots. Then, for five years, I organized conferences for local governments, corporations and community groups all over the Midwest. Patricia used her Masters in IHS to become Central Iowa Coordinator for Mothers For Community Life (MCL). We didn't plan on it, but all those activities allowed us to develop quite a community of contacts and supporters in all three sectors — business, government, and community — people who knew us as enablers of collective vision and problem-solving. Through church groups, MCL and a number of IHS intership programs I'd run, we also had excellent relations with networks of young people.

In June 2015 we took a two month vacation to visit innovative cities in Brazil, especially Porto Alegre and Curitiba. We went to Porto Alegre because it was the city where the Participatory Budget was founded, which has since spread to hundreds of cities around the world. This annual process engages citizens — especially the underprivileged — in discussions about how to use discretionary funds from the municipal budget. We went to Curitiba because the successors to its famous late 20th Century mayor, Jaime Lerner, had continued his creative spirit, applying it increasingly to innovative citizen participation activities. By 2015 Curitiba was attracting visitors from all over the developing world to see “The City That Runs Itself.” We'd read about it several months earlier and were intrigued by the level of cooperation between local government, corporations and community groups. We thought we'd have a vacation and learn some things that would help our organizing activities. Little did we know that visit would transform our lives.

Our encounter with these incredible communities woke us up to four facts:

  1. Elected officials could do a tremendous amount to bring people together to solve problems, especially where citizens were already strongly inclined to do that.
  2. This approach was a different kind of politics than we'd ever seen. In this kind of politics, a politician's platform has only one plank: We will weave together our community into a collective intelligence capable of dealing with any shared issue, achieving any shared dream and solving any shared problem. From this perspective, there is no more important issue for a politician.
  3. No politicians we'd ever heard of had the skills and experience that we had accumulated, the exact qualifications needed to take on that mission.
  4. No politican we'd ever dealt with had the depth and breadth of connections — and the extraordinary reputations — that we'd developed in the last few years.

We came home eager to try creating a new form of politics in Iowa.

We weren't unfamiliar with politics. We'd met each other working for the Gore campaign in 2000. But he was still into macro-environmentalism, a focus on technological solutions and generating visions for the country from the top. We'd left politics because we wanted an approach based more on dialogue and action at the community level. Gore hadn't seen how building community co-intelligence was key.

In the fall of 2015 we weren't sure what offices we'd ultimately run for, but we weren't intending any formal campaigns before 2020. First we wanted to explore our co-intelligent political vision with people we'd been working with in our networks for the last five years.

We decided to start by organizing a week-long open space conference on “Building a Politics of Dialogue in Iowa,” set for January, 2016, in Iowa City. We especially invited

  • women who'd been active in Mothers for Community Life
  • young people who were interested in civic life.
  • people associated with buildings that were or could be used as large public meeting places — schools, churches, retreat centers, inns, community colleges, union and Grange halls and community centers — and city planners in charge of community design.
  • community activists who wanted to generate public dialogue about issues of importance to them — local economics, crime, neighborliness, drugs, education, teen services, racial tensions, etc.
  • practitioners of various co-intelligent methodologies like open space, future search, dialogue, listening circles, study circles, etc.

We were hoping these participants, by sharing their interests and experience, would stimulate each other to generate diverse citizen dialogues over the next few years and start to create a coherent vision of how they could become a new political force in that way. That happened, but in ways we didn't anticipate.

On the third day of the conference, much to our surprise, our friend Melinda Stevenson, the main MCL organizer in Threshold, our home town, said she wanted to talk with anyone who was interested in making us mayors of Threshold in the elections being held that November. We protested that it was too soon. Things hadn't been adequately thought out, we didn't have a strategy or even a coherent vision to guide us, to say nothing of an organization. But it was an open space and we couldn't stop her. When 360 of the 400 people at the conference turned up at that session, their indomitable enthusiasm made us agree to give it a try. Suddenly most of the break-out sessions at the conference turned into self-organized campaign planning meetings. The gathering closed with a press conference announcing our partnership candidacy. The conference participants had really gotten themselves fired up.

The Democratic and Republican candidates didn't know what hit them. We never took any positions on issues. We just sponsored dialogues and said that we'd create dozens more if we were elected. We pulled together one major citizen dialogue after another — 37 in all — over the next nine months, mostly originated by participants from the January conference. These were publicized before, during and after by our local cable channel as well as the public radio in Iowa City and a number of small pirate radio stations we'd never heard of before. Meanwhile, with the help of what was soon over 400 enthusiastic volunteer organizers, we organized neighborhood listening projects, neighborhood newsletters, and what proved to be our most popular and powerful program, Threshold's Story Circles in which neighbors gathered in circles of 5-15 to share personal stories from their lives about issues like crime and education and financial hardship.

Suddenly everything the other candidates did looked very old and dry. We won the 2016 election with 82% of the vote.

Before we launched our campaign, we had asked our volunteers to keep on volunteering for as long as they could, and to recruit more people, not only to get us elected, but to help us weave together Threshold's collective intelligence on an ongoing basis, regardless of what happened with the election. About half of them decided to work for us only during the campaign. The rest — bless their souls! — continued to give us ten or more hours a week, and they recruited hundreds more.

After our landslide victory we selected 24 citizens at random from our database of all those who'd participated in all forms of dialogue and story-sharing during the campaign, and created the first Threshold Community Wisdom Council. All the local media agreed ahead of time to publish the full text of their consensus statement of “The Voice of The People.” Our volunteers set about building expectations in the community about the upcoming statement, encouraging people to attend the community meeting where it would be announced, and preparing the Story Circles to talk about it when it was issued. We thought the Council would come up with a laundry list of hot issues, but let me read you what they said:

“Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. Here in Threshold, we find ourselves asking what we can do, together, for ourselves, for each other and for our community. Our lives are increasingly shaped by our relationships to institutions — to governments and businesses, to their products and programs — rather than to ourselves, to our children, to our neighbors and to this place where we live. At the same time, governments and businesses are increasingly unable to satisfy our real needs. At this point, since so many of us don't know what to do, the most valuable service we can imagine government and business providing is help for us and our children to become increasingly free of government and business, and more fully, capably ourselves. Given the forces at work in our culture, any politician who would work for this goal needs strong pressure and support from the people to make them do what they want to do. Today we have a mayoral team that wants to do what we most need to have done. We call on our fellow citizens to make them do it.”

Patricia and I, of course, were ecstatic. When the wisdom council members were interviewed afterwards, they said they'd made a laundry list of problems, but when it came to figuring out what to do about these problems, the liberals among them pushed for government solutions and the conservatives pushed for business solutions. After days of wrangling, most of the council concluded that both government and business solutions were limited and booby-trapped. At that point an MCL mother told how she and several dozen other mothers had organized their own day care and home schooling co-ops and were gardening and doing community work with their children. She told of the years of learning how to do it, how hard but rewarding it was, and how much they wanted to share with anyone who wanted to apply these lessons to other parts of community life. “All we need is someone to help pull us together, and to give us tools and help us share our knowledge. We don't need more big corporations, more arrogant experts, more embattled city council meetings.” The wisdom council dialogue began to focus on how the best parts of both liberal and conservative positions were fully compatible with a vision of community effort. For a time, the council tried to figure out community programs they should recommend — only to realize that they were becoming just another institution trying to do things FOR people. At that point they downshifted to the basic principle of getting people organized to help themselves. And they realized that our mayorship and campaign volunteers were a once-in-a-lifetime resource to turn the tide. Thus, their statement.

What made this even more powerful was that the wisdom council members were also members of Story Circles in their neighborhoods, members of churches, members of businesses and friendship networks in the community. They brought the insights and stories of the nine-day Wisdom Council meeting out into the community. After that things took off more rapidly than we'd ever dared dream.

We decided to feed the fire by asking the Story Circles — and citizens in general — to figure out which functions of city government and of big business they thought could be better done by groups of citizens. With the help of volunteers, we wove their thoughts together — both in the local weekly paper and on a widely publicized community wiki website set up for that purpose, (We were inspired by the DavisWiki, but we soon exceeded even their wildest dreams…)

We had hundreds of volunteers pounding the pavement, mapping the community assets of Threshold — all our hidden human, natural, organizational and economic resources — while others did listening projects on community problems and past efforts to solve them. We posted and mapped all the assets and resources, and stories of community project successes and learnings — and invited more. Soon people we'd never heard of were posting the most interesting stuff.

By the start of our second year, the city was really cooking. That year's Wisdom Council was right on target when they said that all the talking was great, but more action was needed. And more coordination and help. Thousands of ideas were on the table and many of the groups who were taking action had run into problems. The whole operation was snowballing into chaos — far more than any central organizing effort could handle.

So we declared from City Hall that May, 2018 would be a Threshold Open Space Month, and that Independence Day would kick off Threshold Future Search Month. We picked the hottest items that were being discussed and held seven open space conferences during May, one for each major issue. In July we convened twelve future search conferences on specific activities, concluding with an all-city future search to which people representing all sectors and all major issues were invited. All the conferences were informed by the ongoing community dialogue, the asset surveys, and the listening projects that had been going on for over a year.

By August we'd totally lost track of all the activities these conferences generated, which was just fine. We proposed, and the City Council passed, the Threshold Community Matching Fund Act, mandating that a steadily increasing proportion of the city budget would be dedicated to community projects which were also supported by community donations, volunteer labor, self-reliance and mutual aid. This meant that the city treasury would be used to foster community energy, not dependency. The final allocation would be decided by a participatory budget process.

We also instituted two innovations thought up 20 years ago by John Gastil and Ned Crosby. One is a citizen initiative review through which a citizen deliberative council gets convened to evaluate any qualified local ballot initiative. The council talks to advocates and opponents of the initiative, deliberates, and then issues their collective judgment to the press and public, and their findings and recommendations get printed in the voter information booklet. This helps citizens reclaim the initiative process from special interests. The second innovation we call a Controversial Legislation Review. If the Threshold City Council is preparing legislation and 5% of the population sign a petition to suspend action on it until a citizen deliberative council can pass judgment on it, then it freezes. We then pick a legislation jury of 12 people from the jury pool and give them 24 hours to hear arguments from advocates and opponents and vote on whether to lift or sustain the suspension. If they sustain the suspension, we convene a full 3-5 day citizen deliberative council to study the legislation in detail and cross-examine expert advocates and opponents. After the citizen council issues their findings, the City Council can proceed with its vote under the watchful eyes of their now-well-informed constituents. We're considering using the citizen deliberative council model for other purposes, as well.

In the late fall of 2018, as a result of one of the future conferences, some locally-owned businesses created the Threshold Community-Business Alliance (CBA) with both business and individual members. They established two sets of community life principles — one that all business members were expected to adhere to, monitored by a volunteer citizen's review board, and one that all individual members signed on to as consumers and workers, which pledged their support for local businesses. In the atmosphere of community solidarity generated by all the community-centered dialogue, the membership in the CBA climbed to a third of the population of Threshold by the beginning of 2019. The CBA went on to build support for local businesses using Interra Project community cards. The CBA also formed a community bank and co-op management consultancy inspired by Mondragon Cooperatives, specifically to support the creation of new local businesses.

Another great outcome of the summer 2018 conferences was the creation of our Community Health Indicators which integrated statistics about our children's well-being with a few dozen other statistics, including the percentage of families who said they had adequate health care; square feet of safe, publicly accessible children's play space; and value of organic produce sold. One of our statistics, the percentage of money spent in our bioregion which stays in our bioregion, started at 29% in 2018 and I think we'll pass 50% this year, thanks to the CBA's work. Another result of working on that statistic is the amount of collaboration we've been able to generate in a short time with other communities in our bioregion. This last summer we had our first week-long bioregional fair, that included three simultaneous open space conferences open to all comers. Also, we know of seven other communities that are trying to set up CBAs, on the Threshold model. There's a tremendous amount of interest in what we're doing, and we love sharing our stories.

There's so much more I could talk about and I know I'm about out of time. We did an essay contest last year, in which the best essays we received each week were published in the local weekly and on line. The essay topic had three parts: “What voice isn't adequately heard in Threshold? Why should it be heard? What would it say?” This helped us finally confront some racial problems that many of us hadn't been adequately aware of. The May open spaces in 2019 included one on racial issues which generated a lot of interesting activities, including a volunteer interracial council to orchestrate them all that's still meeting every other week. The community theater invited one of Anna Deavere Smith's former students to help create a local “Racial Voices” program, which was shown on local TV and discussed both in the theater and in many Story Circles. A Community Sunday Bridge-Builders Network was founded to organize interracial religious services and dinners. That generated the Affirmative Community Action which involved interracial teen teams in community volunteer work. All this has been supported by a peer co-counselling network, several listening projects, multicultural education curricula in schools, multicultural holiday celebrations, and an ad hoc group of facilitators and therapists who do free interventions in these activities and in the community if and when things get polarized. Again, our local media have been a vital force in mirroring all this great activity back to the community and helping us glean lessons and make progress. Young people's video teams, in particular, have showed up all over the place, and their creative videos have gone up on YouTube and gained us some odd notoriety. I think it is significant that, while the 2019 open space conference on race was about racial understanding, the 2020 one was on racial justice. We're going deeper all the time.

I guess that's all I can say right now. Actually, let me tell you about the election we have coming up in two months. Our campaign literature is painted by a local artist, based on the old “Where's Waldo” pictures in children's books. Each flier and poster depicts a birds-eye-view of literally hundreds of little cartoon people engaging in creative community activity, and hidden among them are two little figures of Patricia and me. At the top are the words: “Where's Pat and Pat?” At the bottom it says: “Vote for yourselves on Election Day. Pat and Pat McFallow haven't done anything for Threshold in the last four years that Threshold didn't do for itself.”

So we're just posting these pictures around. They're our only campaign promotion. We're only spending a few thousand dollars on our campaign this time. Because it doesn't matter if we win or not. The new politics has begun. The other two candidates have the same platform we do.

And, thanks to us being in Iowa, I suspect we'll be hearing from presidential hopefuls well before the 2024 elections. Given what's going on in the world, and how hard it is for leaders to really know what to do, they are beginning to realize that it is time to engage people everywhere. We're proud to have pioneered some great ways to do that.

See also

A Politician's Pledge to Hear the People's Common Sense

Co-Intellligent Political and Democratic Theory

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