I have read them all; hundreds of journal articles, academic papers, digests, and many books that were best kept for sleepless nights. I was steeped in the writings of academics, pollsters, populists, non-profit organizations, and many others who had an interest in civic engagement, good governance, volunteerism, and active citizenship.
I was exploring these topics in order to find ways of encouraging more citizen involvement in watershed restoration and protection across Minnesota for the Clean Water Council and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). In response to all of the information I was consuming, I had a growing sense that the watershed management approaches we were using in Minnesota (and the country, for that matter) were not always in step with what was being touted in the literature as the most effective ways of managing natural resources. A more collaborative, inclusive, cross-sector model for managing natural resources was emerging. I did not read about these ideas in one or two articles, but in dozens of them.
The work of the late Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Elinor Ostrum, outlined a transformational set of ideas that hit me between the eyes. She had studied societies around the world, and had looked at how communities succeed or fail at managing finite natural resources, such as grazing land, forests, fisheries and irrigation waters. She found that many communities were quite able to develop ways to govern the use of natural resources (the commons) so that they would provide sustainable resources for current and future generations. She identified 8 principles for managing the commons in a sustainable manner:
- Define clear group boundaries (identify which parties, stakeholders, organizations should be involved in managing the resource).
- Match rules governing the use of common resources to local needs and conditions.
- Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
- Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
- Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
- Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
- Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
- Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.
Implicit in all of these principles were the ideas of “self-governance” and “collaborative governance”. Neither of these approaches were being systematically applied in our watershed approach in the state of Minnesota or anywhere else that I knew of. Our watershed projects were still being driven by state agencies and local government staff, focusing more on the science than the human dimension of watershed management. Resource users were typically not involved in a meaningful way. Could this be the biggest barrier to cleaning up our waters? We had never looked at the issue of water governance before. Maybe it was time.
About the time I discovered the work of Elinor Ostrum, I had met Sean Kershaw, then Executive Director of the Citizens League, and Peg Michels of Civic Organizing, Inc. Sean and Peg introduced me to the ideas of Civic Organizing/Civic Governance, a framework developed by Peg Michels and Tony Massengale. Peg had never heard of Dr. Ostrum, but Peg’s work had amazing parallels with her research. The fascinating part of it all was that Dr. Ostrum had identified “what” was needed and Peg had developed the “how” to get it done. Eureka!
Peg’s Civic Governance approach promotes the idea that civic leadership development and active citizenship should lie at the heart of policy making – be it policy making around natural resources or other public policy issues.
Civic Governance is a framework and approach to governing people and projects that promote democratic principles, active citizenship, governing for the common good, justice, fairness, and accountability within the context of any kind of organization or institution.
Civic Governance is based on the idea that in a democracy, the common good is a negotiated position, not a given. Negotiation occurs in the tension between different understandings of goodness, and that process of negotiation is called what it is-political competence. The ultimate authority for developing the political or civic competence to discern and act on the common good is grounded in our shared role as citizens.
Through the process, civic leaders develop the civic capacity and imagination around what it means to be a citizen, reawakening a sense of hope that we can learn how to negotiate the common good in our every-day lives and in the places where we have the responsibility and authority to act. This is a completely non-partisan approach to governing.
I love the idea of democracy as an aspiration and a challenge. I believe in open, honest and fair governance. And I am passionate about water quality as well. Civic Governance allowed me to combine my interests using one framework.
My initial hunch was that governance was a key missing link in our work for water quality. My hope was that by focusing more on how we govern water, more citizens would be inspired to come together in constructive and collaborative ways to restore or protect the lake, river or wetland that they love.
At the MPCA, from 2013-16, we embarked on a small water governance pilot project which has produced better outcomes for practitioners than traditional, top-down approaches to natural resource management. Over the past 5 years, we have developed a model for water governance that we would now like to share with others and use broadly in the natural resources management field. I have formed Deliberate Democracy, LLC in the hope that we can continue to teach this important framework in Minnesota and beyond. Please follow me and my partners as we continue to bring new people into the process and find new and better ways of promoting collaborative governance. In the final analysis, we are better together than apart.