Power Before Policy

I went to a public forum on Sunday sponsored by CNY Speaks to bat around ideas on ways to improve downtown.

The concept as articulated by Greg Munno, public engagement editor at the Post-Standard and co-sponsor of CNY Speaks with the Maxwell School at S.U., is to create a citizen’s agenda on how to improve downtown and then present the ideas to the local candidates running for Mayor, Council and County Legislature in November 2009.

The problem I have with this whole process is the same I have with most middle-class, good government groups. The groups are well-meaning, but naive. Being well-educated and logical, these groups assume that the perfectly nuanced argument will be recognized, responded to and (eventually) implemented. What these groups do not understand is that politicians and businesses only respond to what they perceive to be in their best interest, they do not give a fig for “the public good.”

The press coverage of the forums is a little breathless about how wonderful it is for everyday people to come together and plan the future of their community. Excuse me if, as a community organizer, I’m a little jaded when witnessing these types of planning meetings. Community groups all over the city regularly do this type of work. SUN sponsors four citizen-run meetings EVERY MONTH.

The difference between CNY Speaks and community organizing is fourfold: after we sketch out our agenda we determine 1) who has the power to give us what we want 2) what we have to do to make the powers-that-be act in our favor 3) what roles the people in our organization will play in carrying out our plan 4) what follow-up will be necessary to ensure the powers-that-be are held accountable for their promises.

Good government groups really believe that their ideas will be debated on their merits. They fight by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the struggle is more of a messier knife fight. Then the groups wonder why either nothing gets done or why what is accomplished contradicts the holy writ of their annotated action plan. Saul Alinsky founded the first neighborhood action group in Chicago in the 1930’s and went on to a forty year career teaching others how to organize. In his book “Rules For Radicals” Alinsky coined an aphorism that CNY Speaks would do well to heed: “power before policy.”

About these ads

One thought on “Power Before Policy

  1. “after we sketch out our agenda we determine 1) who has the power to give us what we want 2) what we have to do to make the powers-that-be act in our favor 3) what roles the people in our organization will play in carrying out our plan 4) what follow-up will be necessary to ensure the powers-that-be are held accountable for their promises.”

    You do a suburb job of outlining an effective strategy for moving an agenda forward. Thank you. It is very useful. It parallels what CNYSpeaks has had in mind, but is stated in a much more concise, clear and useful way than I have been able to come up with.

    Those four steps are, certainly, the next steps. We’re new at this — no arguing with that — and we’re still in the “sketch out our agenda” phase. You can’t accurately determine who in power needs to be pressed until you know what issues you are pressing.

    SUN’s proven track-record as organizers make its contributions and critiques of CNYSpeaks particularly useful. Hopefully CNYSpeaks will be able to return the favor. In addition to hosting its own conversation about downtown, CNYSpeaks wants to serve as a connector between other community and engagement organization, a tool those organizations can use to amplify their messages and audience, a way for all of us to become more than the sum of our individual parts.

    It has been awkward, as a journalist, to plug the forums I myself have been organizing. I’ve tried not to be breathless about it — I’ve tried to promote the forums without implying that we have yet to accomplish anything (we haven’t) and without pretending it is up to me to determine whether they were worthwhile or not (that’s up to the participants.) The good news here is that The Post-Standard is now actively working to engage and represent citizens more directly, and to promote other organizations who do the same.

    Thanks again. I’ll link to your post on my blog this morning. CNYSpeaks doesn’t have to be a “middle-class, good government group.” It can be anything we make it.

    Greg Munno / Post-Standard

    http://blog.syracuse.com/cny-speaks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s