THE BLOG
05/22/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Reinventing Citizenship

This year, President Obama twice made eloquent calls for a sense of common citizenship. "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course," he argued in his Inaugural Address on January 21. In the State of the Union Obama again struck the same chord. "It remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."

Events like the IRS targeting of conservative groups dramatize how far we have to go to reinvent citizenship. We need a long-term process of revitalizing a civic culture in government if civil servants are to work collaboratively with lay citizens in "authoring the next chapter" of America.

Some argue that IRS and State Department actions evidence moral lapses. Thus, in his New York Times column, David Brooks warns about what happens "when government workers lose touch with the human context of their job." Brooks argues that there is a "values problem in the federal government."

We discovered a deeper problem, described in detail in Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work, which I co-authored with Nan Kari. When I coordinated the "New Citizenship" project with the White House Domestic Policy Council from 1993-1995, analyzing the gap between citizens and government, we heard many versions of the sense of growing distance described by Jerome Delli Priscoli, senior policy analyst for the Institute for Water Resources in the Army Corps of Engineers. As he put it, "We've lost the 'civil' in civil service."

Paul Light, a leading analyst of government practices, described the developments in more detail. "In the 50s an administrative view, descending from scientific management, completely took hold. Civil servants lost their flexibility. In government, the notion was that narrow spans of control are the only way to organize human endeavor."

Government employees, in Light's view, were once motivated by an ethos of public service which stressed their civic identities. But this ethos largely disappeared, replaced by a focus on specialization and service to citizens conceived as customers. Such a focus makes government the center of the action and the public the object of action.

"Departments and agencies have plenty of advocates for doing things for citizens and to citizens," Light argued. "But there are today almost no voices for seeing government workers as citizens themselves, working with other citizens." Thus, he added, "citizens are viewed in partial terms - as clients and customers, taxpayers and voters - but too rarely as whole actors, capable of judgment and problem solving."

This loss of the ability to see citizens as "whole actors" has spread widely, in a dynamic which South African intellectual Xolela Mangcu calls technocratic creep. As early as the 1920s, for instance, YMCAs began to trade in their identity as a movement of citizens served by civic-minded "secretaries" for a new identity -- institutions comprised of huge buildings and scientifically trained exercise professionals who provide "programs" for paying members.

Schools, colleges, businesses, congregations, as well as government agencies followed suit. What were once anchoring institutions through which people developed a sense of agency in the world have turned into service providers for customers and clients.

In a recent study for the Kettering Foundation, Richard Harwood and John Creighton found that even leaders of nonprofits with strong community-serving missions, such as strengthening local schools and helping vulnerable children, feel enormous pressure to turn inward, evaluate success by using narrow definitions of service delivery, and avoid real partnerships with lay citizens in their work. Kettering program officer Derek Barker terms this dynamic the "colonization of civil society."

The lesson: It will take civic change in many settings -- not simply in government -- to reinvent citizenship.

Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?