Friday, June 1, 2007

Tough Love: What Is Citizen-Centered Stuff Anyway?

What do people think about the citizen-centered concept? In March, we got a chance to find out when I was asked to moderate a plenary panel discussion on citizen-centered work for the Hands On Network's annual conference. One of the stars of the nonprofit sector, Hands On has engaged thousands of people across the country in volunteering in their communities, including New Orleans where the conference was held...

To introduce this rather complex concept, which, admittedly, isn’t exactly the stuff of witty tag lines and captivating anecdotes, I prepared some opening remarks. Three panelists were on hand to respond: Diana Aviv, head of Independent Sector; David Eisner, head of the Corporation for National and Community Service; and Ben Binswanger, CEO of the Case Foundation.

Diana and David supported the gist of the paper but had some specific questions and concerns about the approach. David cautioned against making citizen-centered work “yet another program” that would merely replace other programs out there. Diana asked about the incentives for nonprofits, already strapped for time and funds to do their work, to engage in public problem-solving. And she and all the panelists had questions as how—and even whether—this kind of approach could be “scaled up” in a bigger way.

Some in the audience saw public deliberation as “too much talking” and “not enough doing.” Still others saw it as a critique of volunteering, which, to my dismay, led to yet another round of the tiresome and interminable “service versus civics” debate. It’s a bit troubling when a concept that deliberately attempts to transcend this kind of “which is better” argument by stressing that it is citizens themselves who should be making the decision about how they want to be civically engaged, rather than experts or program directors, is still grist for the service versus civics debate.

Nevertheless, these are important concerns to address if citizen-centered work is to move forward. How can we explain this more compellingly? What are the incentives for nonprofits to use these approaches? Are they really just another “program”?

No comments: