Mechanisms in public life

I want to start today in a place you might think I would not begin: our need to create good mechanisms in public life and politics. The urgency for public innovation in this particular area is great; we need more mechanisms within society to help us produce real change and foster hope within people. My fear is that too often we fail to meet both these tests. Every day people are creating what I am referring to as mechanisms. Civic organizations and news media create public forums, processes, and other initiatives through which people can speak out; new online platforms offer ways for people to talk together, volunteer, offer their views, and meet up with like-minded folks; foundations create new benchmarks to drive progress and shape the daily work of organizations and individuals.

Time and again people and organizations are developing mechanisms to give people voice, harness capacities, and direct energies. The problem is that there is an important distinction to be made between creating meaningful mechanisms and becoming mechanistic.

Creating meaningful mechanism in public life requires us to be ruthlessly strategic, which means drawing distinctions between competing forces. Take, for instance, the following juxtapositions. It seems to me that we can fall into the trap of equating speed with effectiveness; linear processes with clarity of essence; participating with engaging; scaling up with achieving mission.

When it comes to building new mechanisms in public life and politics, we must keep in mind that our task is for the mechanisms to help us produce change. I say this echoing a key point I raised yesterday, namely that the current system of public life and politics is tired, rigid, and calcified; and the new system that is being laid overtop the old one often serves to fragment people and their voices and turn us away from one another.

People in public life and politics are in search of new pathways to engage and make a difference. There is a need within public life and politics for more given-and-take, greater focus on people’s real concerns, and harnessing of our civic energies. We need approaches that are less episodic and more sustained; that enable people to come in and out of their engagement over time, because people live life overtime, not simply in fragments of time.

The second “test” I mentioned up top has to do with creating mechanisms that give people hope. Here, we must think clearly about the mechanisms we are developing in terms of whether they provide people the opportunity to cultivate a sense of authentic hope within themselves and among others.

We must always keep in mind that when it comes to public life and politics, people are in search of change and hope. They are longing for a sense of possibility – that conditions can change, that their lives can improve, that they can engage with others and make a difference, that something positive is in the offing.

The potential trap we encounter on our journeys through public life and politics is that we will forget the test of change and hope; or, that we will remember it, but then somehow lose it as we reach for our goal. Or, worse yet, we will state that we are engendering such conditions, only to provide false advertisement.

There is a critical difference between creating meaningful mechanisms and being mechanistic. We need public innovation to develop a new generation of mechanisms to foster real systemic change in our society.