We hear a lot these days about “STEM” (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and why we need to inspire and graduate many more math and science students to keep our country competitive on a global stage. The good news is that there does appear to be a great deal of energy going toward advancing this idea in academic institutions.
Having received degrees in science and having worked in government for many years, I understand the importance of having good data and information when creating public policy. However, over the last decade, I have also seen how this single focus around advancing the sciences can lull us into a false sense of security and confidence when it comes to solving complex human problems. “Technology will fix it!”, appears to be our mantra. Yet, while we have been focusing so intently on promoting science and technology, we have missed a key part of the formula for success in addressing the pressing public issues of the day.
The missing link in so many of our policy areas, is a willingness to see that science alone is not enough. One can have outstanding data and information to work with, yet without public understanding and opinion on your side, it can mean very little – especially when you need the public to help in solving the problems you have studied. Without public processes that provide the stage for dialogue, deliberation, and decision-making (that can make good use of the data), important forward progress can sometimes be halted.
In addition to STEM, we need the other essential area of study – civic leadership education (C). We don’t need STEM or civic education –we need a combination of both. Otherwise, we will continue to see a lot of good data and information languish in reports, or end up ignored or misunderstood by the public.
For decades, there has been a disproportionate amount of resources dedicated to data collection and analysis, and very few resources focused on creating just and effective civic processes where we can decide how best to use that data. There has been little attention paid, in most cases, to developing the skillsets of our civic leaders so that they feel more confident negotiating “common good” solutions within their communities. We seem to assume that all professionals have these skills, but many will tell you, they don’t.
Quick Fixes, Civic Engagement Tools and Techniques Are Not Enough
As a civic engagement coordinator for the state of Minnesota, I often worked with state and local government staff. In private, many of them would admit to me that they had no idea how to create public processes that were effective, efficient, open and accountable. They may have been talented technical experts, but they felt ill-equipped to organize caring citizens around solving critical public problems – in this case, it was water pollution. Many experts felt frustrated that they did not know how to address the persistent public problems that were keeping them from getting important work done in the field. And there was no program in place to help them build their own capacities in this area.
At first, I tried to teach colleagues some of the more effective civic engagement tools and techniques. This was useful to a point. But the missing link of civic leadership development became clear to me one day when a colleague who had taken civic engagement training said, “Where’s the beef? I have no idea how to put these tools and techniques into practice to advance the projects I am responsible for.” Later, I would hear similar comments again and again.
My talented colleagues had the scientific data.They had the analysis. But what they did not have was the training and support they needed to create an effective approach for organizing and developing the capacity of citizens to be their partners in solving problems.Teaching professionals the latest civic engagement techniques alone, was akin to providing people with a lovely set of oil paints, but not providing them with the stretched canvas they needed to support their artistic efforts.
Effective civic governing structures and processes, it turns out, do matter a great deal to solving problems effectively and efficiently in our day-to-day lives.
The missing links in public problem-solving are good civic leadership and good civic process. They are not as sexy as a “shovel-ready project”.They don’t excite us the way a new gadget or technology can. They don’t even make for engaging news. But they are essential to human progress – as old as the hills — and every bit as important as science in our complex world.
There is a serious gap out there keeping us from making more progress on the things we care about. Let’s provide the training and support some professionals want and need to effectively govern change in their communities.
Where, oh where, have our civics classes gone?
It began with the erosion of civic education (which is different from civic leadership development) in our schools. Then, in colleges, we created academic silos for learning, which effectively divorced STEM classes from an obligation to a larger civic society. Is it any wonder that when serious issues like climate change come to the fore, scientists find themselves unable to steer around the rocky shores of public opinion and public policy development?
Filling in the Missing Link
A key part of the cure is to see civic leadership education as essential academic training, required for anyone graduating with a science or engineering degree. Learning how to translate and communicate scientific ideas for non-scientists, and how to create civic meetings and process that help people to learn, deliberate and address public problems seems to be as basic and essential as learning how to use the latest software program or technological tool. Civic Organizing offers one place to learn these skills. We have found that its civic framework significantly improves the project outcomes of professionals, if they stay with it over time.
Business as Usual Will Not Sustain Us in This Century
I believe that the 21st century is going to require that we have more scientists who can bridge the divide between the sciences and civics. We will need graduates that have a civic temperament and the ability to form partnerships across sectors, backgrounds, opinions, and time. They will need to be as agile in creating relationships and good civic process as they are in their chosen fields of study. In short, they will need to see themselves as an active citizen first and as an expert second.
Without more emphasis placed on civic leadership development among our best and brightest scientists, I fear that we will struggle to address the thorniest problems of the day.
For more information about Civic Organizing© civic education, please contact me at DeliberateDemocracy@comcast.net