There is more than a ray of hope for America's future...
By John W. Gardner -- Common Cause
Rebuilding America's sense of community
America's Future is a movement involving numerous organizations who have come
together to stem the tide of social disintegration through
community--building, striving for shared purpose while valuing diversity.
America's Future is not a new organization... it is a movement, involving, at
last count, more than 80 organizations who have agreed to participate. The
participating organizations follow their own agendas, which are immensely
diverse. They are engaged in:
- Economic development...
- The prevention of drug abuse...
- The improvement of government...
- Combatting racial injustice...
- Strengthening the family...
- Fighting crime and so on.
What will America's Future do?
Let's look at four lines of activity:
1. Call attention to the wave of grassroots innovation in social problem
There is a remarkable wave of innovation in social problem solving
taking place at the grassroots across the country and we intend to make it
more visible and build on it. It covers just about every domestic problem you
can think of: affordable housing, parent education, school--linked services,
school--to--job programs, early childhood education, programs to prevent drug
abuse, et cetera. We're going to call attention to the innovators. Some are
hardly known outside their city or outside a small circle of experts in their
field, and many of them feel isolated and alone.
Virtually none of them know that they are part of an immensely encouraging
wave of innovation across the country in all fields. We will try to make
their work known and to steer support their way. I need not tell you that
some of the most interesting innovations have been in the field of government
-- or supported by government.
2. Develop an inventory of promising innovations
We are going to tackle
the well--recognized problem of spreading a successful innovation beyond its
point of origin. With respect to any important innovation, we will encourage
the development of appropriate materials for dissemination and training:
videos designed for teaching, manuals, books and training programs. One goal
is to build confidence and a sense of possibility by sharing success stories.
We will develop an inventory of promising innovations so that any interested
person can have easy access to them.
3. We will work to interconnect the various fields in which innovation is
Virtually all of the problems of the city are interrelated, and
each of the different worlds involved must know where it fits. The police
commissioner must understand that the people working with dysfunctional
families will, if successful, lighten the impact of crime and violence a
dozen years from now. The city manager must understand what the neighborhood
leader can do that could never be done from City Hall. We believe that the
most difficult issues today require collaborative efforts by government at
all levels and the for--profit and non--profit segments of the private
4. Make the wave of innovation known to the nation
Finally, working with
the media, with the Advertising Council and with national leadership, we will
bring the wave of innovation to the attention of the nation.
While America's Future is pursuing these goals, the organizations
participating in it will be redoubling their efforts to carry through their
own agendas. The National Civic League will continue to preside over the
competition for the All--America City Awards and will intensify its Civic
Assistance Program (which provides professional assistance to cities seeking
to solve problems they can't solve alone). The Enterprise Foundation will
pursue its immensely ambitious Sandtown--Winches-ter program in Baltimore.
The Points of Light Foundation will expand its volunteer centers. And so on.
With more than 80 participating organizations, the level of activity should
America's Future stands for community
We are concerned for community
We will encourage proven approaches to the
rebuilding of community, with particular attention to the community's role in
the protection and nurture of children, striving for shared purpose while
finding strength in diversity. Community renewal is the path to American
We are concerned with collaborative processes
We will encourage the
revitalization of community through collaborative problem solving, using
well--tested techniques to bring diverse groups together. Through the newly
created Civic Television Network we will provide interactive training in
We will encourage the setting of community goals through dialogue involving
We will foster collaboration among all levels of
government and the private sector's non--profit and for--profit segments. No
one segment can renew this nation. Together we can.
Pursuing its belief in a wide sharing of initiative and responsibility,
America's Future will encourage active involvement in community issues by
individuals. The surest cure for the sense of powerlessness that afflicts so
many citizens today is for them to take action on the problems of their own
communities, restoring belief in their capacity to make a difference.
The conventional ideal of citizenship was that one should inform oneself on
public issues and should vote. The new ideal adds the element of year-- round
citizen attention. You're never off the hook. You're responsible for your
The action starts on the street where you live
Events halfway 'round the
globe are important. But we can't be a force in the world if our own society
is disintegrating. And our society can't be whole if its communities are
America's Future will seek to restore faith in government as a critical
partner in community problem solving
We will work for open, responsive,
accountable government, and will seek to create mutually trusting alliances
between government and all sectors of the community. I believe strongly in
the potential creativity of action at the community level. So did President
Reagan -- which confirms the old saying that an idea isn't responsible for
the people who believe in it. The difference is that Mr. Reagan never did
quite believe in the Federal Government. I believe that the Federal
Government not only has its own important role to play but can significantly
heighten grassroots creativity.
America's Future will seek to strengthen volunteer and philanthropic efforts
to re-weave the fabric of community life.
America's Future will combat all of the conditions that limit human
fulfillment within a framework of law and custom -- ignorance, racism, ill
health (physical or mental), physical abuse, substance abuse, et cetera.
Reinvigorating the nation's spirit
There's one final objective of
America's Future that I mention with some hesitation because it seems so
ambitious. We'd like to turn the mood of the country around! Nothing less!
The state of mind of the general public is anything but constructive,
anything but positive, anything but forward--moving. One hardly knows how to
characterize it? Negative? Inert? Sour? What's in it for me? Heaven help the
athletic coach with a team so little inclined to pull together, so unwilling
to sacrifice for a shared objective, so paralyzed by a can't--win spirit.
That must change. With such an attitude pervading the public, no government
can govern, no leader can lead, no community can act effectively to solve its
We need to show the American people that some things do work, that some of
their fellow Americans haven't given up, that there is, in short, hope. So
much for America's Future. That's the short version! Now let's turn to the
processes of renewal involved in the effort to redesign government.
If we are going to pursue the path of renewal, we had better understand how
it takes place in a social context. Purposeful social change occurs through a
long and disorderly process of trial and error not unlike that of an infant
learning to walk. The infant stands up, falls down, tries again, fails again,
has partial successes, learns, bumps its nose, cries and tries again. It has
many failures before it succeeds. But social innovation encounters a
difficulty not experienced by the infant learning to walk. If the critics of
social innovation were watching, the first time the infant fell, the cry
would go up, "Drop the whole effort! You were obviously wrong! Unintended
I think we should face up to this problem with candor. No plan for social or
institutional improvement can be put into effect without many in--course
corrections. There will be failures and fumbling. It goes with the territory.
And if one can judge by the precedent of corporate renewal, there will also
be a succession of fads and panaceas. Woodrow Wilson said, "A clear proof of
the divinity of the gospel is the preaching it has survived." A proof of the
vitality of corporate renewal is the blizzard of buzzwords it has outlived.
The key to renewal: releasing energy and talent... The consideration leaders
must never forget is that the key to renewal is the release of human energy
and talent. We have all seen those gleaming projections of the society of the
future that feature an endless array of technological marvels and never
mention human talent and energy. It is as though the technology invented
itself. Similarly one sees projections of wonderfully efficient new
administrative structures with very little thought given to the men and women
who will have to make these structures work and redesign them if they don't
Put people first...
The National Performance Review report commissioned by
the President and Vice President did give due attention to the humans in the
system. I just want to double and redouble the emphasis. We must rid
ourselves of the illusions that the system to be renewed is something out
there, apart from us, like a broken water main. The system to be renewed is
mostly inside us. Apart from us and our shared beliefs there isn't much out
there. The dance doesn't exist without the dancer.
Our cities can't become vacant houses
Walking the streets of a great city
at 4:00 a.m., amid the solid, silent buildings, you might feel that something
very substantial remains even when humans are absent. But on that scene the
humans aren't absent for long. If you want to see what happens when humans
really leave, keep watch on an abandoned house in a deteriorating
neighborhood: the paint peels, the plaster cracks, the roof springs a leak,
the timbers rot, the pipes burst, the panes break. And the question is not
"What is the list of things that need fixing?" The question is "Where is the
caring and creative human hand, the hand that builds and rebuilds houses --
Well, it's time for me to get you out of that abandoned building, but I don't
want you to forget the search for the creative human hand. We are great at
drawing up the list of things that need fixing, at identifying problems to be
We must be equally skilled in nurturing men and women who have the capacity
to see the problems and the spirit to solve them. The capacity of a system to
renew itself continuously is dependent in part on the capacity for renewal of
the men and women in the system. The structures and processes don't redesign
Society can do much to release human talent and energy
The first thing
society can do is to remove obstacles to individual growth. That means, among
1.Doing away with the inequalities imposed on some of our citizens by
prejudice, poverty and other handicaps.
2.It means continuous and effective education and career counseling to help
people achieve the promise that is in them.
3.Every government agency should have a
philosophy of individual growth and renewal built into its personnel and
career development practices.
It is not enough to set aside funds for an educational program. What may be
needed most is a way of treating individuals that provides them with the
challenges that produce growth.
Focus on motivating good employees to stay
In organizations, the concern
for human resources starts with recruitment and involves the selective
movement of people in and out of the organization. Many a government agency
has gone downhill because good people drifted away, just as many a country
town has lost vitality from the continued emigration of its most energetic
young people. The advantage of the country town is that summer visitors then
stream in to savor the quaintness. The quaint government agency doesn't
attract summer visitors.
Obviously, for the leader who is concerned with renewal, there is hardly any
subject more important than motivation. It requires effort to break the bonds
of habit and entrenched procedures.
The level of motivation in a system is closely linked to the level of morale.
And that brings me to a subject of considerable interest to all of us -- the
morale of the Federal worker.
When I was an employee of the Federal Communications Commission during World
War II, the morale of career civil servants was high. It wasn't just the
excitement of the war. For a decade the New Deal had given government people
a starring role and it was good for them.
In the decades after the war, I served as a consultant to seven different
agencies, and witnessed over those years a slow but steady decline in the
status of the civil servant and an accompanying decline in morale. It was not
a decline in competence. When I came to HEW 20 years after the war I was
struck with the high level of performance in that agency.
The morale of civil service is critical...
Today both the morale and status
of the government worker are low. Those who call for government renewal are
going to have to grapple with that fact. Civil servants, as a sample of the
general population, are afflicted with the same loss of hope and self
confidence, the same loss of faith in the probable success of their
collective efforts that characterizes the rest of the nation. But they have
an additional problem. As civil servants they are beginning to feel that they
are members of a battered profession. They don't take it kindly and it
doesn't put them in a great frame of mind for renewing anything. They feel
toward most of their critics the way lamp posts must feel toward dogs.
Collaboration, not fragmentation...
Let me suggest how this affects one
critically important current problem. I think everyone now understands that
our toughest problems won't get solved unless and until the major players
collaborate. In the cities, for example, the Federal government must
collaborate not only with state and local government but with the business
world and with the numerous and powerful non--profit institutions and
associations that characterize American life. Virtually all of the problems
of the city are interrelated. Yet fragmentation is the prevailing condition,
and the segments are often in poor touch.
Government should encourage collaborative problem solving and should enter
into it as a friendly, fair minded collaborator. It should relate to, listen
to, and seek to understand all relevant segments of the community.
Knee--jerk government--bashing is of little use...
But government officials
stung by the public's withdrawal of trust, and by the hostility toward
Washington that has become a standard weapon in political campaigns, aren't
always finding it easy to enter into such collaboration in a confident and
generous spirit. They must open up, loosen up and interact with other
segments of American life in constructive ways, and they will be more likely
to behave in that fashion if the
articulate and informed segments of the public break their habit of
knee--jerk government--bashing. We must restore the role of the public
manager as a necessary and valued partner. That, as I told you, is one of the
goals of America's Future.
American community renewal will be no quick fix, one time operation
difficult to speak of the necessary tasks of renewal without giving the
impression that it is a once--in--a-- generation effort. But if you believe
as I do that solutions carry the seeds of new problems, and that today's list
of problems will be replaced by another list some years later, then you will
ask how a society can prepare itself for continuous problem solving,
continuous creative coping. And that's a very different kind of question.
In earlier times one generation might create patterns that several following
generations would live by unquestioningly. It was as though one generation
built the houses, and succeeding generations lived in them, forgetting their
building skills in the process. Today we are more like people in a land of
recurring earthquakes and tornadoes, where each generation must keep its
building skills fresh and in fact rebuild almost continuously.
All detailed attempts to design the society of the future are no more than
smoke blown into the high winds of change. Blueprints of the future there can
Wisdom lies in humility on this particular journey. The future will bring
what it brings. But that doesn't mean that we sit passively awaiting
unforeseeable events. We can deal vigorously with the problems we can now
foresee, as Vice President Gore and his team are doing so admirably.
Beyond that we can have our minds amply stocked with contingent plans,
estimates of better and worse paths to travel, visions of what could be or
might be or ought to be. And, above all, we can ensure that the men and women
in the system are equal to the challenge. Treasure those men and women.
Nurture them. Help them to grow.
The surest guarantors of our future are individuals and the ideas they have
in their heads, including the values, intellectual, moral, and social, that
they convey to young people coming along.
To prepare for the swift transitions ahead, our surest assets are highly
motivated men and women with a sense of what is important of the human
future, with the capacity to learn and re--learn as transitions emerge, and
with the skill and spirit to rebuild.
A final word...
This nation is in trouble. I believe that we're beginning to find our way out
of the trouble, but that is still to be proven.
- We have just been through the greatest spending and speculative binge since
the 1920s. Our national debt of far over four trillion is in effect a
burdensome tax on our grandchildren.
- Our infant mortality rate is the highest in the developed world -- twice
that of Japan. More than twenty percent of American children are growing up
And we are seeing what Robert Hormats calls "the collapse of the
intergenerational compact" through which each generation saved for the
future, had regard for long--term national interest and left a productive
legacy for those who followed. What we're leaving our grandchildren is
- Our infrastructure is decaying and our investment in plant and equipment as
a percent of GNP falls below most industrial nations.
Informed Americans are all too familiar with the list of problems -- the
explosive issues of poverty and unemployment, crime and violence, racial
conflict, housing, healthcare, political corruption, environmental
degradation, a troubled educational system, international crisis and so on.
It's not just a matter of re-inventing government! Carry that message to
everyone you meet. We all have to shape up -- the corporate world, government
at all levels, the non-profit world and citizens generally. It's character
time. As a people we have done far less than our best, and now we are
indulging ourselves in a sour negativism that puts our future in hazard.
We have proven in earlier crises that we are better than that. It's time to
prove it again.
This article was originally published in the Journal for Quality and
Participation and is copywritten by the Association for Quality and
Participation, 801-B W. 8th St., Suite 501, Cincinnati, Ohio 45203, Tel:
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"This is the time, we are the people, let's work together... Now!"
Organizations participating in America's Future...
America's Future is not a new organization -- it is a movement, involving at
last count, more than 80 organizations who have agreed to participate. A few
of these organizations are:
- The Alliance for Redesigning Government
- The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
- Campus Compact
- Center of Community Change
- Corporation for National and Community Service
- Enterprise Foundation
- International City/County Management Association
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
- National 4--H Council
- National League of Cities
- National Academy of Public Administration
- National Civic League
- National Council of La Raza
- National Urban Coalition
- National Urban League
- Points of Light Foundation
About the author:
John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, is chairman of
the board of the National Civic League, a member of the advisory board of the
Community Foundation of Santa Clara County and a senior advisor to the
American Leadership Forum's Silicon Valley Chapter.
Gardner served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1965--1968.
He has been an advisor and chair of numerous Federal commissions and task
force initiatives as well as Federal agencies. He was a captain in the US
Marine Corps during World War II. In 1964 Gardner was awarded the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honor in the US.
Author and editor of several books, Gardner was editor of President Kennedy's
book To Turn the Tide. Gardner has a BA, MA, and a PhD in psychology and is
Miriam & Peter Haas Centennial Professor at Stanford University's Graduate
School of Business in Stanford, California.