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.”