There is more than a ray of hope for America's future...
Rebuilding America's sense of community

By John W. Gardner -- Common Cause

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:

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 solving

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 occurring

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 sector.

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 be high.

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 renewal.

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 those techniques.

We will encourage the setting of community goals through dialogue involving all stakeholders

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 community.

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 falling apart.

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 own problems.

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.

Redesigning 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 consequences!"

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 work.

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 -- and civilizations?"

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 solved.

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 themselves.

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 other things:

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

It is 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 never be.

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.

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: 513-381-1959, Fax 513-381-0070: all rights reserved. You may download and print it for your own personal use. If you wish to share it with others by photocopying, e-mail or by placing it on another online service; reprint it in a newsletter, or reprint all or a portion of it in a book for resale, or in a packet included in a course for fee you should contact Ned Hamson, editor at the address or numbers above or at for permission.

"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:

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.