A National Interest Incubator
When Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin decided to create a new middle school, one that would far outperform the typical middle schools of the Houston school system, they faced an enormous design challenge. How to pack the new school with as many causes of success as possible? How to remove design features that push schools toward failure?
If one tries to imagine an incubator for civic competence and the national interest, one faces much the same design challenge. How to mobilize as many causes of success as possible? How to ease ourselves away from all those habits that turn into causes of failure?
The starting point is relatively simple. “A competent nation manages scale effectively and with integrity.” “A competent public helps its country manage scale effectively and with integrity.”
Let’s imagine an incubator not as a place but as a network, or even as a series of networks. A true incubator is a place of warmth; a virtual incubator will also want to be a place of warmth. A true incubator is a place of light; a virtual incubator also wants to be a place of light.
Those who reach out to one another to create an incubator of civic competence will want to do so in a spirit of warmth and light. What matters first is the warmth of the civic hearth. If we remind ourselves that we are an affectionate and responsible people, and that we benefit from good manners, we will be on our way.
An incubator, though, is not an in-group project. It creates a neutral setting to which all are invited. No Republican signage. No Democratic signage. The code is very broad. We are Americans, we want America to be competent, we want to be part of a competent public, let’s see if we can give ourselves a fresh start.
One element of a fresh start is that one views all Americans as part of the same conversation. It isn’t easy, with more than a hundred million different households, to drop a flyer in everyone’s mailbox, wish them well, and ask them for their good wishes in return. Yet that’s exactly the right spirit. A conversation about civic competence should always strive to be a conversation that says, “let’s keep everybody posted.”
Conventional politicians design targeted mailings. Democrats let other Democrats know what they’re doing, but they don’t bother to send their mailings to Republicans. Republicans send mailings to other Republicans but ignore the Democrats. A competent public knows that scale cannot be managed effectively without everyone being part of the conversation, so a competent public announces what it’s working on and invites even those who disagree to stay tuned.
As an ice-breaker, this might be one way of framing the core concern. “We want to ask ourselves three questions:
“If special interests always prevail over the national interest, what happens to America?
“If we behave only as Small Hat citizens, never as Large Hat citizens, does America benefit?
“If American citizens have no interest in integrity, what sort of nation will America be?”
Americans of all persuasions are affected by these concerns. What happens if America is nothing more than a nation of special interests? What happens if we as citizens are nothing more than special interest partisans?
Now let’s imagine six phases of activity. Step by step, we develop our personal competencies by giving ourselves new challenges.
1. Think Aloud Together
If we are to be a competent nation, surely we would want to be comfortable both thinking aloud and listening to one another as we take turns thinking aloud. We enrich ourselves and one another when we do.
My church did this, some years back. We pulled groups together based mostly on a random draw. Quite a number of gatherings took place, each with its own host or hostess. At each gathering, the same three questions were placed in front of the group. One question asked about strengths, one asked about concerns, and one asked about hopes. The rules were simplicity itself. Go all the way around the circle. Give everyone a turn. Have a notetaker who records each person’s comments, so that the church could have a permanent record. When finished with the first question, move on to the second, then the third.
Refreshments were served. It takes time to go all the way around a circle three times, with three distinct questions. Almost no one thinks aloud for ten seconds and then stops. It takes time to get in touch with one’s feelings and to share concerns. Listening as others think aloud is both relaxing and engaging. We didn’t argue. No one dominated, no one felt insulted by the twists and turns of an unfriendly debate. The process bore fruit; from all this thinking the church evolved a strategic plan that has served it well for quite some time.
Imagine something similar for conversations among citizens on the larger subject of America’s future and America’s competence.
Perhaps we would think aloud about questions like these:
“To what extent is America’s direction shaped by special interests?”
“Describe a negative scenario for America’s future that worries you.”
“Describe a positive scenario for America’s future that would appeal to you.”
“How would you like citizenship to be understood?”
Some gatherings might get through these questions in one session; some might want more time and might stretch the discussion out for a second session.
The first goal is quite simple. Through the simple act of listening respectfully to each person in the room, remind ourselves of our common humanity. Appreciate one another, our warmth and our sincerity as Americans.
The second goal is equally simple. Discover the value of thinking aloud. Discover the value of listening to others as they think aloud.
Connection. Good manners. Mutual respect. Warmth. Listening to our hearts. These are the ingredients for success in so many situations; surely they are the ingredients for national competence as well.
2. Develop a Code of Civic Ethics
Not long ago, I Googled the phrase “Democratic Party Code of Ethics.” Zero hits. When I Googled the companion phrase, “Republican Party Code of Ethics,” I got a few hits – glancing blows, really – and they all centered on Illinois. When I searched state by state, from “Alabama Republican Code of Ethics” to “Wyoming Republican Code of Ethics,” I got zero hits on forty-nine states and the District of Columbia. Only in Illinois, it seems, has anyone experimented with the idea of a code of ethics for a political party. (Early 2011)
Think of it. Ours is a vast nation with a $14 trillion per year Gross Domestic Product. Republicans and Democrats alike proclaim themselves fit for the responsibilities of national leadership. Yet neither party has ever bestirred itself to create a meaningful code of ethics and communicate its code to the nation. [There is now - June 2011 - a modest amount of discussion under way on the need for some Codes of Ethics.]
Let’s not wait. Let’s take this on as an early project for a civic competence incubator.
One might well begin by throwing the question open for discussion everywhere. “If we are to be a competent American public, in a competent nation, by what Code of Ethics should we operate? As citizens? By what Code of Ethics should both parties operate?”
Let’s hear from everyone, regardless of political persuasion.
Let’s enrich the discussion by gathering examples from other fields, and perhaps from the field of politics in other nations.
What ideas might we bring forward for a Code of Ethics for America’s civic life?
We might want to say something about good manners being better than bad manners.
We might want to say something about evidence-based reasoning as a desirable ethical standard.
We might want to affirm listening to others as an ethical obligation.
We might take a cue from the Fisher-Ury book Getting to Yes: “Be hard on issues, be soft on people.”
We might want to discourage flaming on the internet. We might want to discourage the spirit of slander.
There are dozens of ways to carry out polling of this sort. One of the best tools has been created by the British company Imaginatik. Its Ideation software supports instantaneous open-ended polling of tens of thousands of employees within a global corporation; it supports swift distillation of the a vast range of replies into the full set of themes that respondents have proposed; it supports additional rounds for enriching and refining the suggestions offered in the first round. Why not adapt a tool with these capabilities to the public discussions we want to hold as citizens of a vibrant democracy?
How might such a discussion come to closure? Perhaps closure at a national level isn’t the aim. Coming to closure locally or regionally might be sufficient. Do we want a healthy civic life in America? A Code of Ethics for Public Life would be a step forward. A Code of Ethics for Political Parties would be another step forward.
3. Initiate Core Asset Tracking and Reporting
As presented in this book, a Core Asset Balance Sheet is a tool for discovering Consequences. Understand which assets are healthy and which are unhealthy. Understand which assets have a positive trendline and which assets have a negative trendline.
A competent nation manages scale effectively and with integrity. If we see deteriorating assets, we might reasonably suspect that some important activity at scale has been badly designed. Its replication engines are causing damaging consequences rather than beneficial consequences.
Where the nation sees deterioration, the nation can redesign the way it does business.
Core asset balance sheets are a natural project for the civic incubator suggested in these pages.
The key issues have already been touched upon elsewhere. What, precisely, is the best design for a core asset balance sheet? How many tracking capabilities already exist? How many new capabilities ought to be added? How does one launch a Core Asset Balance Sheet? What will a mature infrastructure look like in years to come?
An early start makes sense. No point waiting to finalize a comprehensive design before a launch. Begin with a rough sketch and a few initial datasets. Engage the public in a testing and feedback process. Refine the approach.
Think of such a project as a modern version of a barn-raising. People come together for fellowship and food; they also come together as a resource-rich team in order to accomplish something big in a short period of time.
21.1 Revision 2011-06-27