The New Localism

I conducted an experiment last week.

I asked 10 random friends/colleagues/acquaintances from all political stripes one question: What’s the first word you think of when you hear the words Washington D.C.

The answers I received were as follows: three said “swamp”, four said “dysfunctional”, two said “partisan” and one replied “nausea.”

Chances are you might have answered the same way. And it’s not because the nation’s capital isn’t a cool city full of great museums and monuments.

Sadly, this is not exactly a golden age for “can do” federal government.

So what’s a caring citizen supposed to do in times like these?

The answer: go local.

If you want to solve problems think local, work local, vote local and get involved in your city, county, or region.

That’s the advice given in a great new book “The New Localism” written by urban experts Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak.

I breezed through the book soaking up the stories of successful efforts in cities as varied as Pittsburgh, Copenhagen and Indianapolis. It’s heartening to read success stories in our time of national dysfunction and gridlock.

“The New Localism is a philosophy of problem-solving for the 21st century,” says Katz who works for the Brookings Institution. “Cities are now dealing with some of the hardest challenges facing our society: social mobility, competitiveness, climate change, and more. The 20th century was very much about hierarchical systems; specialized, compartmentalized, highly bureaucratic. The 21st century is going to be networked, distributed, and led by cities.”

Says Nowak: “It (New Localism) calls into question how we think about leadership. It must be much more horizontal than vertical. These are things that we have observed on the ground, so this isn’t only aspirational, although we’re certainly in a nascent stage.”

I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Nowak in that “new localism “may be a nascent term, but local problem- solving has been around for a long, long time.

Look at any successful city—Austin, Boulder, Boston, NY, Chicago and yes Delray and Boca—and rest assured any success you see did not happen by accident.

It took planning, vision, implementation, entrepreneurial thinking, private sector engagement and public and private sector leadership to create whatever level of success you experience.

But while there is no newness to the efficacy of home rule, it is good to see a new term applied to it: New Localism has a ring to it. I hope it takes off.

Why?
Because it needs to.

Because the swamp just isn’t going to be drained any time soon.

We Stand For What We Tolerate

politics

Politics on the national level has become a cesspool.

Not a locker room—a cesspool: defined as a foul and putrid place.

Mean, disrespectful, devoid of truth and full of anger, vitriol and hatred.

And once the invective is spread into the atmosphere and billions of dollars are spent, guess what? Not much happens.

Very few problems are solved.

Very few opportunities are seized.

And that, my friends is where the source of anger and frustration resides.

Washington long ago lost the plot. The whole concept of helping people and building a great nation has been overwhelmed by obstruction, intransigence and an inability to get anything done.

It has become a cycle of pathology and it’s boiling over and threatening the greatest nation in the history of the world.

You’d think with all the Ivy League degrees and privileged pedigrees that run around Washington that the political class might just figure things out.

The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump—all are reactions to problems left unaddressed and political dysfunction. People are angry and they have every right to be.

I no longer have small children, but I don’t think I would have let them watch the debate last week if I did.

This is not a slam on Trump or on Hillary—because their candidacies are merely symptoms. There would be no room for a brash maverick to come to our rescue if Congress was taking care of business. And if you think Hillary is a horrible human being–fine– but then shouldn’t we wonder why our best and our brightest aren’t attracted to politics anymore?

Why has politics become a dirty word? Why has compromise become a sign of weakness? Why is civility and respect no longer demanded or respected of people who seek the highest office in the land? Or any office for that matter?

Shouldn’t politics be a form of public service? After all, the definition of politics is: “the theory and practice of government, especially the activities associated with governing, with obtaining legislative or executive power, or with forming and running organizations connected with government.”

Therefore, a good politician is someone skilled in the practice of government; someone who can get results hopefully those that help our nation. We need more good politicians. The ones we have are lousy.

But we have demonized the word politician and yet we scratch our head when demons seek power.

Our politics have become so toxic that they actually cause stress and anxiety.

Time magazine and The Atlantic recently devoted entire pieces to the topic recently.

From The Atlantic:

Stephen Holland has practiced clinical psychology for more than a quarter century. He has done so in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. He has never seen an election like this one.

“I’d say probably two-thirds to three-quarters of our patients are mentioning their feelings about the election in session,” he said.

So it is, perhaps, with every election. Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, said that therapist appointments anecdotally rise every election season. But 2016 seems to be something else entirely. “

Wouldn’t it be nice if elections were inspiring rather than dreadful?

This is the first election that my son, a recent college graduate, has focused on intensely. What he has seen scares him and he’s worried about his future as a result. My take: it may get so bad that we will have no choice but to fix Washington. But it seems we are still in the throes of a hissy fit and so solutions won’t happen until it gets so bad we won’t be able to stand it anymore.

Meanwhile, I think the best place to innovate and solve problems is at the local level.

So counties and cities that have their act together can make positive things happen in areas of importance to people: education, job creation, quality of place, public safety, transportation the environment etc.

This week, the Knight Foundation opened up its latest funding round called the “Knight Challenge for Cities” seeking to provide grants to cities that concentrate on the three areas the foundation sees as essential drivers for success: attracting and keeping talent, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

It’s an interesting list and one backed by studies done by the foundation and other researchers. But the nature of those drivers is distinctly local.

So there is great hope for cities—but that’s accompanied by a big ‘if.’

Local politics is not immune from the cesspool and toxicity. And on a local level– where you bump into combatants at Publix and downtown—it can get personal and nasty in a hurry.

I have been following local politics for 30 years. I remember when local campaigns got by on shoe string budgets and when volunteers filled envelopes with mail pieces that actually contained ideas and position statements.

I keep a pile of recent campaign mail on a credenza near my desk. I don’t look at it every day, but it’s there as a reminder for me and for visitors who sometimes drop by to talk local politics.

If you didn’t know anything about Delray and were just handed the pile you would think the city was war torn Beirut not a municipal success story that went from blighted to national recognition.

But in recent cycles big bucks have been spent trashing candidates and the city itself.

Years ago, every negative candidate who ran against the city and against progress, got whupped.

These days it’s a race to the bottom with voters (who are vanishing despite a growing population) forced to choose between negative candidates. Ugh.

And shame on the candidates for signing off on that crap.

But most of all, shame on us for tolerating it.

Want better candidates and better debates—demand it.

Hold elected officials accountable and support those who have ideas, experience and passion for the community. You may actually find a few if you create a culture that would encourage those types of people to run.

I hear from scores of people unhappy with the local political scene. They should be, because it’s sorely lacking.

But there are plenty of really good people around who would make fine elected officials; they just aren’t running because of the toxicity. The best and brightest don’t need it—they have other ways to spend their valuable time.

But when you get a gem, someone brave enough to enter the arena with ideas, compassion, vision, courage, kindness and strength make sure you support and protect them. Stand up to the negativity and the trolls and you might just see a better culture take shape and with it more quality candidates.

Sadly, we may not be able to fix Washington all that easily. But we can always fix the home front, but only if we choose to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Local Leadership

Our future depends on our choices.

Our future depends on our choices.

I’m a big fan of New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Even though our politics don’t quite line up, I always glean something from Brooks’ writing.

This week, Brooks wrote an excellent column in the wake of the Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights violence.

It was a quick trip through history and a treatise on how societies can come unglued after major upheavals such as economic dislocation, technological advances and war.
While Brooks concludes that we are not quite broken, he does believe we are peering over the abyss. It’s a dangerous place for a country to be and is often characterized as polarization after tragic events rather than a coming together.
Brooks opines that the answer to America’s problems during similar fraught eras has always been leadership. He is spot on.  Leadership responds to the moment and helps us navigate to a better place.
What’s especially interesting is Brooks’ contention that the answers to America’s many challenges may come from local leadership–local police, local non profit leaders, neighborhood reformers and mayors.
All across America, cops, educators, local elected officials, public servants and local innovators are making strides and changing lives.
Brooks is hopeful that some of these game changers will make the leap and fix our ailing and frequently embarrassing national politics.
Lord, I hope so.
Meanwhile, it’s clear to me that the places that will thrive and create opportunities are those cities and communities that are blessed with dedicated, visionary and brave civic entrepreneurs who fix neighborhoods, improve schools, eradicate crime and find ways to create economic opportunity for all.
If you’re lucky to live in such a place count yourself among the fortunate.

But it’s not enough to sit back and count your blessings because transformation is never ending and you can’t grow complacent or declare victory. Your work is never done. And progress can be more easily squandered than gained.

It’s critically important to find and nurture local leaders, empower them, support them, help them, defend them and if you do–watch your city soar.
If you are not so lucky and you are plagued by corrosive leadership or lack of leadership– get involved and resolve to make change.

Bad leaders=bad outcomes. That’s the law. Wish it was different, but its immutable.

On the local level it’s possible to change things with an injection of one or two solid, mature leaders who realize that being an elected official is a job to do not a job to have. There’s a difference.

It’s not about their resumes or egos or personal preferences, it’s about moving a community forward by serving it.
If you are not sure what you have on your local council or commission, take the time and figure it out.

Attend a meeting, view a few online, email an elected official and see what happens.
If you watch a meeting observe whether they are focused on ideas, opportunities and problem solving or whether they are fixated on each other or grandstanding statements. It’s easy to tell. Watch how they treat the public and city staff, are they courteous, warm and professional or are they dismissive, rude and distracted? Do your elected officials ask questions, do they listen to facts or are they reading from a script with a closed mind? Are they empathetic? Are they able to frame issues, calm the community and focus on what’s important? Or do they fan the flames and major in the minor?
If you send an email on a local issue or concern do they respond in a timely fashion? Is their response” canned” gobbledygook or detailed and sincere? You’ll know.
Positive change can happen quickly when the right people are in the right seats on the bus. You’ll spin your wheels if they are not on the bus and you’ll eradicate whatever progress that’s been made if the hard workers in your city  are under that bus.
Block by block, brick by brick, that’s how we get America and our cities moving again.