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  • The problem with official futures

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    The idea of civil society has been at the center of public service reform for several years.

    Its promotion has been encouraged by the rise of third-party government and need to provide higher-quality, more citizen and choice-centered public services.

    Government has celebrated people as agents of change and created opportunities for committed citizens and motivated amateurs to take centre stage and make public policy.

    Cultural and commercial accomplices have included user-friendly, user-generated media platforms.

    And the feeling of a citizen revolution has been promoted by calls to arms of events like Making Poverty History and Earth Aid.

    What's followed in public management is a boom in 'public consultation' by service providers, the rise of initiatives such as participatory budgeting and the positioning of the Third Sector as a deliverer of public services.

    But for every step forward in giving 'power to the people', there appears to be ever-increasing powerless-ness or people behaving in ways that increase the 'democratic deficit'.

    In Unlocking Innovation, a recent paper by the policy think tank Demos, writer Melissa Mean gets under the lid of the dilemma.

    Over the last year, Demos has been running a participatory planning initiative in Glasgow, Scotland, in which people have visioned the future of their city.

    Understanding the value of her project, Melissa writes:

    The problem with official futures is that they swallow people's sense of agency.

    Everywhere you look in Government just now, there are official futures: strategies, visions, shining spires, guidebooks that enable the new mantra of 'direction of travel'.

    This visioning is pepper-potted with initiatives that enable alternative, popular versions of the future to flourish.

    But the two often don't link up and the unofficial is allowed to flourish, selectively pick-and-mixed and used to celebrate process, not outcome.

    In their book Governing By Network, Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers reveal a possible reason.

    They identify accountability as one of the most difficult challenges of an age of government that parcels authority and responsibility throughout a network of partners.

    For networks to work effectively, their architects need to define the public good they want to produce, set goals and find ways in which those goals can get pushed down the network of project partners.

    Goldsmith and Eggers say that:

    ...getting buy-in to the goals at the beginning can help rally people around them later.

    Maybe because many projects are motivated by getting buy-in, they don't actually get under our skin; and they fall short of an architecture of management that enables self-organization.

    Social networking media and knowledge sharing tools like Facebook and Wikipedia seem to hit the spot.

    They allow popular participation, collaboration and allow people to design their own space.

    They allow people to fashion outcomes and build them in cellular ways, not just act as consumers and buy a once in a lifetime offer.

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