Citizen Governance: Leading American Communities into the 21st Century

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Richard C. Box

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  • Dedication

    “… whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.…

    Thomas Jefferson, 1789

    Copyright

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    Foreword

    In the early 1970s, I lived in a subdivision in a rapidly growing suburb of Pittsburgh. There was one street into the subdivision; every day, when the school bus stopped to let the kids off, the street was completely blocked. The community had a council-manager form of government, and many of the council members were representative of the “old” residents.

    As the community grew, the need for an additional fire station became apparent. Acting on the advice of the Community Planner, the Council approved locating a substation just within the entrance to the subdivision on a piece of land owned by the deputy fire chief, one of the old residents (it was an all-volunteer force at the time). Two hundred residents of the neighborhood presented a petition to the Council explaining the problem with the school bus and asking why the station could not be located in a vacant field across the road form the subdivision. We were assured by the planner that zoning variances would handle any problems although he had never been on the street when the school bus stopped.

    At the end of the meeting, the Mayor, a milkman by trade, thanked us for our participation and informed us that he was persuaded by the Planner because “he is our expert.” Shortly thereafter I decided to go to graduate school so I could be an expert too. The Planner ultimately became vice president of the largest development corporation in the area. The fire substation was not built in the neighborhood.

    This case illustrates many of the issues that Richard Box raises in this book—the citizen as outsider, the practitioner as expert, and the legislative body as representative of elite interests. The Community Governance Model outlined in this book would change those roles, making the citizens decision makers with the practitioner as expert adviser and legislators responding to the needs of all community residents.

    Professor Box has drawn on his rich experience as a local government manager, coupled with his studies of democratic processes and public administration, to develop a model of governance which serves the public and, in its ideal form, enhances the professional life of practitioners. He readily admits that his is a normative vision of how local governments can be managed, but he sees it emerging all over the country as citizens insist on meaningful participation in the development and implementation of policies that affect their lives.

    The Community Governance Model is carefully developed to address the traditional values of public administration—e.g., efficiency and effectiveness—while also involving citizens more dynamically in the process of governance. The primary role of the administrator is to ensure that the policy process is open and inclusive and to provide advice and technical assistance to citizens who have traditionally been left out of local government decision making.

    The model is compelling to those of us who believe deeply in the basic concept of government by the people—democracy with all its flaws. Early in this century, public administration was developed to improve government by importing management principles from business. One of the most important principles was executive control over implementation decisions in order to maximize efficiency and minimize political interference. Ironically, the Progressives who espoused “good government” also created a governance model which excluded ordinary citizens and skewed democracy toward the interests of elites.

    Richard Box is attempting to bring public administration back to democracy by drawing new roles for practitioners and citizens in the governance of their own communities. Pointing to the widespread distrust of government today, Box argues that the exclusion of citizens has diminished the expertise of practitioners and the legitimacy of legislators. The only way out of this dilemma is to restore democratic principles by giving citizens a positive, inclusive role in the policy process. Involving citizens in governance will develop greater understanding of the role of government in society, the complexities of policy development, the difficulties of achieving consensus among diverse interests, and the nature of the public administrator's job.

    Box's vision is no panacea, however, and he identifies some of the risks involved in implementing the Community Governance Model. Citizens will be involved not only in developing policy but also in implementing it. This may be expecting a lot of many citizens who are less involved in civic affairs today than earlier generations. There is a greater risk for practitioners who may offend powerful elite interests by working with other citizen groups; and they will no longer have the politics-administration dichotomy to hide behind with its imprimatur of expertise. Community governance implies that no individual has the solution to community problems so that involvement with citizens is a necessary function of the practitioner's work.

    I also worry, and continually remind Richard, about the narrow interests of communities. How can we in the broader community ensure that community governance does not devolve to the protection of parochial and exclusionary community interests? Isn't it easier to implement this model in the walled-in, economically elite subdivisions that are springing up all over the country? How will community governance serve the interests of the poor, the disabled, the “others” of our localities? How will communities expand their policy base to include the interests of the greater community outside their neighborhoods? How can community governance be implemented in the large urban areas of our nation?

    This book presents a vision of how our country could work if citizens were invited into the process of governing. The answers to the questions above will come in the refinement of the model during implementation. The book should be read by public administrators, citizens, and political leaders who are truly committed to improving government. The principles outlined here should become a part of what we teach to our public administration students as we prepare them for the twenty-first century.

    Democracy is a messy system at best and not designed to be efficient. Yet it is still the best form of government devised to date. The development of public administration diminished democracy by installing experts in government positions at all levels and disenfranchising citizens from much participation beyond voting. Even with all our management techniques to increase efficiency and efforts to reinvent and improve government performance, public trust in public administration is at a historic low. The Community Governance Model seeks to restore our faith in government by bringing citizens to the table and public administrators to a central role in democracy. It is worthy of our consideration.

    Mary M.Timney

    Acknowledgments

    Many colleagues, authors, students, citizen volunteers in communities, and historical figures have inspired this work. There are three individuals, one group of people, and some publishers I would like to thank specially for making the writing of this book possible.

    Professor Henry (Budd) Kass read the manuscript several times over 2 or 3 years, making detailed and insightful comments that I took very seriously. At one point, when I thought I might abandon the project, his encouragement led me to try once more.

    Professor Mary Timney has been kind enough to write the Foreword for the book. I asked Mary to do this for me because her view of American democracy is penetrating and critical in the best sense, with a strong emphasis on citizen self-governance and honest discussion of power relationships. When I write something normative I think what her reaction might be; though we might disagree, this internal dialogue serves as a compass for my work.

    This is my first book. I came to scholarly work late in life, having been a local government practitioner for a number of years before I chose to become a teacher and writer. Publication of this book carries a special meaning for me because the intended audience includes people I care about very much: scholars, public service practitioners, students, and citizens who want to advance the cause of democratic community governance. I want to thank Catherine Rossbach, Acquisitions Editor, and Sage Publications, for making it possible not just to get the book into print, but to publish it with a company that has done much to advance the study of public administration.

    The group of people I want to acknowledge are my students at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Quite literally, the book could not have been written without them. This is because my thinking about the topics covered has been shaped by our in-class conversations and written dialogues, shaped both substantively and in terms of my conception of what students of public service need to know about the relationship between Americans and their governments.

    Finally, I have used portions of my published papers in this book, in places excerpting the material directly as a springboard for new writing, in places revisiting and reworking the concepts from this earlier work. I wish to thank the following publishers for kindly giving me permission to use this material here (citations are in the reference list): Sage Publications for two papers that appeared in American Review of Public Administration; Professor Jong Jun and California State University, Hayward, for two papers that appeared in Administrative Theory and Praxis, the journal of the Public Administration Theory Network; and Marcel Dekker, for a paper that appeared in the International Journal of Public Administration.

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    About the Author

    Richard C. Box is Associate Professor of Public Administration in the Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He served for 13 years in local governments in Oregon and California as a planner, as a department head in the areas of planning, building safety, housing, and public works, and as a city manager. He completed his doctorate in Public Administration at the University of Southern California in 1990, the year in which he came to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

    Richard Box teaches several courses in the GSPA, including Introduction to Public Service, Financial Management, Human Resources Management, Local Government Politics, and Intergovernmental Management. His research focuses on the relationship between political responsiveness and professional rationality in a democratic society, and his work has been published in several national journals in the field of public administration. He has taken part in a variety of community activities, including serving on citizen committees examining community issues and making presentations on the theory and practice of areas of financial and personnel management, organizational structures, and the roles of professionals and elected officials. His community activities are directed toward improving the quality of public governance through open dialogue and citizen access to the public policy process.


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