America’s government – representing 21% of its mighty economy – was shut down as those of us living here celebrated the arrival of the New Year. Nearly 800,000 federal employees were put out of work, including the transportation security agency tasked with ensuring that our flights to Quebec City to announce the world’s Top7 Intelligent Communities on February 11th will take off – I hate to use the word – without a bang!
Ronald Regan’s infamous, unfortunate political dictum, spoken on a January day in 1981 was not only put to the test, it was proved resoundingly wrong, but in a way that gnaws at you the way in which a platitudinous claim can reveal a nugget does. He got something right by forcing us to again rethink the virtues of government.
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.”
Ahhh, but of which government was “The Gipper” speaking?
The one that builds walls and suggests to others that they be torn down? The one that fights wars – or prevents them? The one that governs from far away – far from the curbside where the garbage is picked-up?
Or the government whose city council gathers in chambers far removed from the glamour of network TV cameras to review zoning rules over permits that will have a local environmental impact on a neighborhood for generations? Or the one where a citizen-generated broadband task force tries to figure out an affordable way to bring this new railroad to town, but finishes the meeting on time so that parents can get to the junior varsity game before tip-off on Friday night?
I am certain he wasn’t talking about this last form of government. Those whose stakeholders in business, academia and local government are twisting strands for a new community DNA and who actually understand what it means to go from “smart” to “Intelligent.”
As we see every year at ICF, the exciting race to a new frontier of democracy and the leveling of the “global economy” is run along a bridge being built by local governments. And here, for sure, government is not the problem.
But the shutdown of the American government is a problem. It too revealed the fissures in a wall. Beyond the Smithsonian Museum being closed, the shutdown revealed problems not of federal or local government’s making specifically, but of a type that their neglect enabled. The shutdown revealed that barriers did exist. Darn big ones. They are far worse than barbed-wire tipped, concrete and steel slats. They are long, intractable and have released a poison that sickened another generation’s hope. These barriers – which resulted in brain drain, rundown housing, loss of jobs and a demoralization that is gray and wrinkled before its time - was years in the making. Yeah, and when government tried to get government off its back, rather than clarify its role, those chickens, now let free on the range since 1981 by those unfortunate words, came home emaciated and angry to roost in the form of drugs, mental health crises and polarization of all kinds.
But things changed because – as I am convinced on my better days, that while people may be stupid, we are not suicidal.
As local governments were handed a task that only a passion for home, innovation, technology, education and freedom could tackle, many did. (“The Gipper” would have liked that.)
For many, their first emotional response was anger. Anger at what had happened in their hometown over the past 30 years. I am of that school. It is one that preaches that anger is a good ignition switch to propel action. Think about Jesus at the Temple. By every account he was pissed, but it led to better things in the long run!
It was righteous anger that was experienced by federal employees, whose employment was once considered a pathway to the middle class life. These workers, valuable protectors to much that we hold dear (like air safety and clean water!) were showing up in food pantries giving testimony to their fears. Few told them that their anger should be defused. But if only anger persists, it makes us prey to bad ideas fed by nothing but that emotion. Been there, done that, broke the windows.
Stupid but not suicidal.
Perhaps that is ultimately what Thomas Jefferson meant. We know that going beyond anger, toward what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the beloved community” is where the action - and traction - is. The founder of World Central Kitchen, chef Jose Andres, knows this too. His anger led him to cleverly launch #chefsforfeds from his global initiative. His anger led him to put a food kitchen for workers at 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, smack between the White House and the USA Capitol where both sides of the national government could watch the spirit of local action get to the heart of the problem.
Multiply this by 180 cities and towns who follow the ICF Method and hundreds more pursuing their path using six simple indicators, and you can see why “beneath the radar” the walls are tumbling down.
On February 11 in Quebec City, Canada, we and and Laval University will gather some of these bridge-building, innovative communities from around the world. Places feeding us with case studies of real-life governments creating, quietly, percolating new economies and NOT being the problem. These are places on a path to the future. They will be there from Finland, Taiwan, Vietnam, the USA and Canada to discuss the challenges and the successes of the Intelligent Community. They are transparent about their problems and persuasive in their faith that city governments can be the enabler of great things to come. They will use the ICF Method to keep moving across the bridge. Or, if you are inclined to think that way, to help scale the wall.