Placing Blame Rather Than Working Toward a Solution

I like to think deeply about public policy. I think there are very interesting structures and ideas that we could put in place which would help us to achieve better outcomes in our societies. The challenge, however, is that the outcomes we want to see are based on value judgement. As in, I think the world should be more this way or that way. When we use the word should we are expressing a judgement that represents some type of value that we hold, which other people might not hold. That means that our political structure is ultimately based on opinion and preference rather than rational cold hard facts.

 

But we don’t really see our world of politics in this way. We see the world of politics differently, believing instead that there is a clearly preferential best answer that can be empirically determined, and arguing as if we know what that perfect answer is. The result from this in the United States, where we have a two party system, seems to be polarization and contempt for the people on the other team. Across the globe, this tends to result in blaming others for bad things that we see around us, and voting for politicians who make us feel warm and fuzzy and rationalizing our support for them even if their ideas might not actually make sense when fully implemented.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about this phenomenon, “Elections these days often seem more about who is to blame than who is to govern.” We don’t think deeply during an election about the governable skills that someone has. We discuss policy, but the reality is that almost none of us understand policy in a deep way, and if we do, we only understand one narrow policy space. We are not all economic experts across the board, we are not all education experts, and we are not all medical experts. But we have vague senses about what would be in our interest and what types of views we should hold to fit in with other people like us. As a result we fall into a blame game where we criticize the other side for bad things and put blinders on to ignore the governance shortcomings of our own team.

 

Cowen continues, “Voters are less inclined to see their selection as a long-term contract with a candidate or party and more likely to see it as resembling a transaction with a used car salesman.” This is not surprising if you consider that no one is actually a policy expert. We want to see people like us do well in society, so we align with whoever seems to be best positioned to do that. We don’t really know what will lead to good outcomes, but as long as the politician or party says that people like us are good, then we know to align with and vote for.

A Public Purpose Mandate

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak advocate for new governance structures to help encourage innovation and lead to dynamic growth for cities and metropolitan regions. Katz and Nowak believe that current structures and institutions are inadequate to respond to global challenges that demand multisectoral action, technological innovation, and network approaches to problem-solving.

 

One of the recommendations from the authors is to produce new systems and structures for the effective management, use, and development of public assets. The authors are critical of public management strategies that often lead to politicized decision-making and cronyism. At the same time, the authors don’t suggest that public assets should simply be sold to the highest bidder from the private sector for their own profit maximization. Public assets can play a huge role in city revitalization and growth if managed properly, and the authors recommend that cities and metros look to Copenhagen for examples of better public asset management.

 

The City of Copenhagen has created publicly owned private corporations for the management of public assets and economic development spaces. An insulated private company is responsible for maximizing public benefit through the use of the city’s assets. In regard to transferring this system to cities in the United States, the authors write, “The United States also has to come to terms with the fact that public assets can be effectively managed by the same private systems and principles that build private wealth and productivity, but with a public purpose mandate.”

 

We like to think that there are either public systems, like say the DMV, or private businesses. Our debates and discussions generally center around the pros and cons of each, with people trying to reach an impossible conclusion that one system is inherently better than the other. Katz and Nowak show that Copenhagen took a different path, looking at how a private corporation could be established with public ownership and an ultimate purpose of maximizing public returns rather than private financial returns. The result has been an entity that can think long term, coordinate with both public and private organizations for responsible and equitable growth, and make decisions that focus on improving the city of Copenhagen in a realistic way that responds to actual economic trends, pressures, and forecasts. This blend of public and private is more robust than either pure private development or public management. The result of finding a third path is a new structure that can actually address problems in rational manners and sidestep the pitfalls that are so common in American city governance.

New Considerations for the Public vs Private Discussion

In the past I wrote about the importance of privacy in our politics from the point of view of Jonathan Rauch and his book Political Realism. We have almost no trust in government, and we frequently say things like, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” but the reality is that politics is made much more complex when it is in the open. Difficult negotiations, compromises, and sacrifices are hard to do in open and public meetings, but can be a little easier when the cameras are turned off and political figures who disagree can have open and honest discussions without the fear of their own words and negotiations being used against them in the future.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak acknowledge the difficulties faced by governments when open meeting laws force any discussion to be public. The laws come from a good place, but for local governments that need to move fast, make smart decisions, and negotiate with private and civic sectors to spur innovation and development, public meetings can lead to stagnation and gridlock. A solution proposed by Katz and Nowak is for local governments to authorize private corporations overseen by public bodies and boards to operate economic development areas and to take ownership of public asset management.

 

They describe how the city of Copenhagen has used this approach, “Copenhagen has found that by managing transactions through a publicly owned, privately driven corporation, operations run faster and more efficiently in comparison to how local government traditionally tackled public development projects.”

 

The private corporation running local development is publicly owned. It is still accountable to the local elected officials who are ultimately still accountable to the voters. But, the decisions are private, the finances are managed privately, and negotiations are not subject to public meeting laws. While the corporation has to demonstrate that it is acting in the public interest, free of corruption, it can engage with other public, private, and civic organizations in a more free and flexible manner to accomplish its goals. Leveraging the strengths of the private sector, publicly owned private corporations that put local assets to work can help drive change and innovation.

 

Directly calling back Jonathan Rauch’s ideas, these corporations create space for negotiations that would be publicly damning for an elected official. They also prevent elected officials from having undue influence in development and public asset management, preventing them from stonewalling a project that might be overwhelmingly popular in general, but unpopular with a narrow and vocal segment of their electorate. This prevents public officials from pursuing a good sounding but ineffective use of public resources to signal loyalty or virtue to constituents. Removing transparency and making the system appear less democratic, as Rauch suggests, might just make the whole system operate more smoothly and work better in terms of the outcomes our cities actually need.

The Complement of Networked Governance

The last few weeks I have been writing about governance ideas presented in Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism. One idea I have brought up multiple times is the idea of new institutions at the local level formed from networks of public, private, and civic actors. Katz and Nowak argue that these networks are crucial for the development of plans and strategies to help cities grow, adapt, and thrive in a globalized economy. New institutions include structures and frameworks that bring together public, private, and civic leaders who have the ability to mobilize energy, capital, and people to actually get things done, rather than to just talk about doing things.

 

Katz and Nowak are clear, however, that these new network governance structures are not something they suggest as a replacement to traditional government structures and agencies. In their book they write, “In the end, however, networked governance is a complement to functioning government, not a substitution. As responsibilities shift downward in societies, capable local governments become a necessary component of problem solving and leadership.”

 

I previously wrote about the ways in which our denigration of government in some ways create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where talented and motivated people are afraid of the stigma of government work and chose to work in the private sector, leaving government with less capable and dynamic talent. A lot of rhetoric says that government is the problem and not a solution, but Katz and Nowak show that government has to be part of the solution.

 

City and local governments create the structures that can organize private and civic groups. They create the forums through which stakeholders can deliberate and discuss the problems that people in the region face. Agencies play a role in ensuring that projects and programs taken on with the support of private and civic groups follow legal precedent and sound administrative practices in an equitable manner. Without a competent public sector, the plans from governance networks would have nothing to graft onto, and could not be implemented nor developed.

 

New governance approaches through networks are efficient and effective because they bring in the people who have the expertise in a given area and invite them to be part of a larger solution than just maximizing their bottom line. They engage community members and actors in place-making, helping the region grow in a way that will in turn benefit each member of the network. The network fills the gaps in public action and strengthens the weakest parts of the public sector. Together, a competent local government combined with the nimble and expert private and civic sectors has a great advantage in the field of problem solving.

Culture Busting

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call for culture busting among city leaders who want to find new solutions to pressing problems. One of the challenges we face is that in general, the public doesn’t understand governance well. We operate with set ideas about what governance is, who sets rules and regulations, and the roles that private companies, local community groups, and formal government agencies play. In the future, as problem solving becomes more local and as we try to tackle major challenges we will need to get beyond these simple models from our high school civics classes.

 

This is what Katz and Nowak call culture busting, “culture busting is a form of risk taking and a fundamental shift in understanding that many responsibilities in a city and metropolis lie with the community broadly rather than with the government narrowly.” The role of government, the role of businesses, and the role of everyday citizens needs to change if we are to truly address the big problems in our societies. If we want to tackle climate change, if we want to reduce healthcare spending, and if we want to spark economic development, we have to realize how interconnected all of the challenges we face are, and we have to develop a community focused action plan to make the necessary changes. Thinking that problem solving is the role of government or that economic development is purely a free market phenomenon will not help us jump to be dynamic leaders in a globalized economy.

 

Part of what culture busting calls for is more education around governance and part of it is a reemergence of community action. A major failure of suburban life is that we drive from our homes to our places of work or commerce, and rarely interact with anyone else along the way. We let others deal with problems unless they happen to be unavoidably right in front of our face. We might get out for a sporting event or a conference, but otherwise we are just as content to watch Disney+ at home. Culture busting replaces this individual isolation with networks that want to see real change and are willing to own part of that change.

 

Culture busting requires that we re-imagine what is possible for governments and redefine the role of businesses and civic organizations. It requires that we think about the challenges our communities face, and ask ourselves what resources and advantages do we have that we can use to make a difference. Rather than waiting for government to make a decision, it requires civic and private energy to clear the path and display a public will for government to direct resources in the direction that the populace already wants to move. It shifts leadership from government back to the people and aligns actors to make the community a better place.

A Complex Interplay

In the United States, we have a myth about the power of private industry. We believe that the private sector is robust, efficient, and always provides the correct and stable equilibrium needed to solve problems and provide us with innovation. We see free-market competition as the only legitimate way to advance and grow, with popular TV characters expressing ideas such as, “Capitalism: God’s way of determining who is smart, and who is poor.

 

Public action, on the other hand, is downplayed and typecast as an incompetent, greedy villain. Accepting aid from a public agency is seen in some ways as a cop out, or only as something that is acceptable for a short period of time as long as you are deserving of assistance by working hard, trying to be smart, and following all the rules that others lay out.

 

For those who have achieved success, this model fits nicely with the worldview that they would like to see and believe. It elevates them while framing poverty or economic distress as a moral failure.

 

As we move forward as a globalized society that is able to adapt to technological changes and new institutions, we will have to realize that this myth does not reflect the reality of public programs or the private sector. In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about their idea of dynamic new approaches to policy and governance,

 

“Successful network governance models show the complex and varied interplay of the public, private, and civic. The models eviscerate the cartoon version of an efficient private sector taking the place of an inept and incompetent public sector. Rather, network governance combines the entrepreneurial capacity and capital of business and philanthropy with the legitimacy and broader concerns of local government.”

 

Government and public institutions have an authority and responsibility that is hard for the private sector to replicate. Because government agencies don’t have a profit motive, they are able to focus on public priorities and concerns in ways that businesses cannot. However, because businesses have private capital available for investment, they can take risky bets and make investments that public sectors could not. Finding ways to merge the strengths and weaknesses of public and private sectors is crucial to develop networks that have the appropriate capacities to invest in the future and implement changes to help regions grow and advance.

 

Simply claiming that the private sector always provides the best outcomes or that the public sector is slow and bloated does not help us think about what is really needed for economic growth and development in the 21st century. Both sides need to be understood clearly and appreciated for their strengths and unique features. Future governance models will combine aspects of both the public and private sectors to get stuff done.

Cogoverning Within Institutions and Among Leaders

A great myth among the American populace is the myth of compartmentalization. We (or at least people who don’t study a specific area) tend to think that things are separate and distinct. The reality however, is that things are much more connected than we believe. I’m going to approach this idea from the standpoint of public policy, government, and the private sector, however we see this myth of compartmentalization in the way university departments are set up or in the way we want to have sports/entertainment separate from current political and social affairs. In the world of public policy, we like to think that there is government, and then there is business, and they are separate from each other.

 

This myth is slowly being dismantled in the United States at the level of local leadership in cities, businesses, and civic organizations. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the new transformations we are seeing in local leadership and governance. They write,

 

“The current suite of supersized challenges and de facto devolution of responsibilities demands new models of networked governance and fundamental re-framing and refocusing of the leadership class in cities. The most effective local governance occurs in places that not only deploy the formal and informal powers of government but also create and steward new multi-sectoral networks to advance inclusive, sustainable, and innovative growth.”

 

Governance is no longer simply a government agency separate from the rest of the world. Businesses and public agencies are becoming more connected as the challenges, problems, and complexities of society increase. It is not enough for rules and regulations to be set in a compartmentalized way by a supposedly separate and outside agency.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “The logic is incontrovertible: if cities are networks of institutions and leaders, then institutions and leaders should co-govern cities.” Leaders from business and civic organizations need to help govern alongside the agencies that set regulations. Government and business cannot be compartmentalized, and different sectors of business and public services cannot be compartmentalized. Cities are interdependent, creating networks that rely on each other to succeed. The risk here is that agencies will be captured by businesses and industry, establishing protectionist policies that help the business at the expense of the larger ambitions of cities and metropolitan regions. Katz and Nowak include suggestions in their book for new forms of quasi-governmental institutions which can translate the desires of businesses into public policy in a way that mediates the concerns of public agencies, businesses, and civic groups, helping further the inclusiveness of the decisions, rules, and regulations being put in place.

Collaborative Governance

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss the elements needed for cities to continue to grow as economic engines of modern economies. The United States currently has a handful of dynamic cities across the country which are powering the national economy. San Francisco (really the Bay Area as a whole and Silicon Valley) is powered by tech companies, Houston is powered by oil giants, Boston is driving medical and biotech engineering, and New York City continues to be a powerful financial hub. While each of these metro regions is a model for the resto the country, they must adapt to globalized economies moving forward and must find ways to embrace new innovations to keep diversify and strengthen their own economies.

 

Katz and Nowak write, “the critical element is collaborate governance across networks of public, private, civic, and university institutions and leadership. No one sector can alone power a city and metropolis forward in today’s complex and competitive economy.” A single sector is not enough to reliably and consistently sustain an entire city or region. New innovations in diverse fields that share common foundations is required for economic well-being today. In order for cities to diversify and develop new industries in new sectors, a confluence of public institutions, private businesses, involved philanthropies, and cutting edge research universities is key.

 

The public sector has to be able to adapt and adjust laws, rules, regulations, and oversight in a world where every competitive advantage matters. Government must continue to protect the public interest and safety, but needs to allow for the organization of structures that can make real decisions timely. Private sector leaders also need to be involved and commit to place-making, developing the cities where they are located and bringing something beyond “jobs” to a region. Civic organizations and groups can fill the gaps between these actors and help provide funding and leadership initiatives to related to place-making and oversight.

 

None of these efforts will succeed if an intelligent and motivated workforce is not available to connect with the agencies and organizations involved. Research universities play a role in new economies by connecting students with relevant research and helping to get innovation out of the lab and into the private sector. Connecting students with real companies that are taking real steps to make their communities better will build the energy and excitement necessary for an educated and motivated workforce to make economic growth, innovation, and development possible. Some of this I recognize is “pie in the sky” thinking, but it is necessary for future growth. Pushing companies to become Public Benefits Corporations and rewarding more civic minded and responsible organizations is a small and necessary step to move in the direction I described, otherwise, there is nothing to convince companies to make greater investments in place-making rather than just finding a nice place to move to.

Cogoverning

A key aspect of new localism, as described by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their book The New Localism, is cooperative governance. The national government and many state governments today are characterized and plagued by partisan gridlock, however local governments are able to function and get beyond gridlock through principles of new localism. Cogoverning is a term that the authors use to describe the new system of governance that is in action at city and metropolitan levels across the nation today, and that seems to be able to help communities thrive in a globalized world.

 

The authors write, “Cogoverning also helps explain why New Localism is nonpartisan. The regular engagement of business, civic, and academic leaders elevates pragmatic thinking and commonsense discourse and crowds out the inflammatory rhetoric associated with partisanship and ideology. This creates a healthy group psychology that rewards creative tinkering (the essence of problem solving) rather than obstructive action (the essence of partisanship). Localities, in other words, engender group innovation; legislatures reward groupthink.”

 

At a local level, our common interests are more clear. We can more clearly see that a rising tide in our city or metro will lift all boats, and we can get on board to make big advances. Having the leaders of businesses, civic groups, and academic research facilities coordinate together helps bring elements that might normally oppose each other and cause friction into alignment to GSD (get shit done). On a national level, we lose our common interest, and we revert to a form of tribalism where we look for the group that reflects our identity, and lose an ability to GSD as we become recalcitrant partisans, only favoring legislation if we gain without the possibility of a loss.

 

A key distinction at the local level between new localism and business-as-usual is that new localism brings together leaders from different arenas. It is not just a single business leader who dominates or a single industry that holds the loudest voice. Placemaking requires the input of people living in the place, and it requires that those with money and authority also work with those who can bring a civic perspective and cultivate local support for initiatives. By incorporating these voices and working together, business leaders can find new innovative solutions to problems that will actually be supported and aligned with the spirit and interests of the local community. Creative tinkering cannot be a top-down process that is guided by business and government agencies alone, it requires a bottom-up element that incorporates the desires and values of the local population. New localism incorporates this bottom-up element in a constructive way, by bringing the top leaders of organizations and groups together in structures and situations that demand decision-making and not just deliberation.

A New Kind of Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s third highlighted feature of New Localism in their book The New Localism is that it, “reflects a commitment to a new kind of problem solving that is distinct from the uniformity of policymaking.”  American cities and metropolitan regions are leaders in innovation, diffusion, and development in the United States. The networks formed between university researchers, students, business and industry, government agencies, and local non/not-for-profits or charities help new research translate into real-world applications and eventually into new innovations. Crucially, this is not just true of new technological innovations. In medicine, material science, and communications technology we see new devices entering the market to change the ways we live, but outside these areas we are also seeing cities and metropolitan regions innovate thanks to dynamic networks and united stakeholders. New Localism is helping to drive new forms of governance, new forms of funding for local projects, and even new ways of engaging communities.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “It adapts the risk-taking and attitude of individual entrepreneurs and investors to the collective sphere. It is experimental and tolerant of failure. It is the twenty-first century embodiment of Franklin Roosevelt’s words in his famous 1932 speech: It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another, but by all means, try something.”

 

Government is frequently criticized for being slow and unresponsive. Rules and regulations take over, and creativity, customer service, and improvements seem to disappear. Without a profit motive, it is hard to see why governments should feel a pressure to move quickly and why they should feel a pressure to be highly responsive to the public. Free markets on the other hand (and especially tech start-ups), seem to operate on a model of, “move fast and break things.” They feel pressured to always up the design and innovate, although they also face a pressure to provide gimmicks and overstate their level of innovation and fast-breakiness.  New Localism helps by finding a way to establish more of a common ground between these two extremes.

 

New forms of social and civic organization can help create quasi-governmental structures that provide the regulation and oversight necessary to protect citizens, but businesses can find profit and reward from working closely with those structures to innovate in a way that actually solves the local problem. Funding from associations and foundations help reduce the risk that government agencies would otherwise face, again providing a new avenue to help encourage innovation and development while avoiding typical roadblocks in a standard policy making process. These new ways to solve problems are a direct result of new networks and local action to address challenges in a cohesive manner.