Reflecting on What Happened at the First Big Ideas Conference

ARTICLE | Jun 21, 2010

James H. Svara, Director, Center for Urban Innovation, Arizona State University

Big Ideas on the Future of Local Government is both an intriguing and misleading way of thinking about what happened at the first conference.  It is intriguing to assemble a group of practitioners, public service association representatives, academics, and foundation directors to consider the forces that are driving change in local government and to share their views about what the impact may be.  At the same time, it is misleading to think that the discussion resembled a parade of blimps with one big idea after another floating by to astonish the onlookers, as in “Wow, that’s a big one!” The ideas presented were not necessarily extraordinary, iconoclastic, paradigm-shifting, or what other big adjective one might apply, but they were penetrating, insightful, thought provoking, and informative.  The participants were certainly not onlookers.  They were engaged with the ideas and amplified them in general sessions and small group discussions.  

Perhaps a better description of the content of the conference is that it consisted of expansive ideas and big realizations.  The presentations and discussions—in small groups, over dinner, or walking around Decatur—served to expand our thinking about topics that are familiar.  The discussion was organized around big themes—citizen engagement, fiscal priorities, and sustainability.  We thought about not only the techniques of involving citizens but the reasons for doing do.  We recognized that fiscal challenges not only force us to reconsider programs but also reexamine assumptions about the nature of public service and what kind of compact governments have with their employees and their residents.  Even in the face of financial adversity, can we think in terms of assets and opportunities rather than deficits and threats?  We all know that “acting locally” is critical to promoting sustainability, but it is important to hear the evidence that local and state governments are actually leading the way in developing new approaches to address global problems.  

Unconventional questions were asked about other topics as well.  Partnerships are obviously important, but can local governments think about developing their own regional charters to promote a new approach to governance?  Can governments and private companies develop new interactions that go beyond contracting out or getting companies to locate or expand their operations in your community?   Can governments, nonprofits, and foundations share the convening function to assemble residents for dialogue?   The energy that so many participants have commented on was generated by breaking out of standard, constricted ways of thinking about issues.

In addition, there were big realizations.  From this perspective, the discussion was not about big ideas driving change but rather about what current changes tell us about the next big idea.  Some realizations are profound and personal—“let’s remember why we are in public service.”  There was the recognition that everything is connected.  Meaningful action on sustainability will take the widespread commitment of residents throughout the community, and new partnerships across current boundaries.  The “new normal” must not be defined by what is left after the cutting is done.  Rather it should reflect what residents decide are the most important services that they, community organizations, and their government together should and can provide.  From this perspective, the next step is to start thinking about the concept of a “community budget” that relates the combined assets in all sectors of the community to its needs and aspirations.  The advance of broad-scale, cross-jurisdictional and cross-sectoral governance must be combined with new forms of “micro-governance” as individuals and groups look for ways to solve their own problems.  They may work by themselves or perhaps with the assistance of government and other organizations but not depend on someone else to take the initiative or provide all the resources.

These observations all point to the most common and pervasive realization.  Citizen engagement is a shared endeavor not “owned” by residents or government.  It is intended to forge a common resolve to improve the quality of life and to build a vibrant community.  Many others have commented on this aspect of the discussion, and it will be a major focus of the second Big Ideas conference in Ann Arbor in September, 2010.  But it will not be the only topic of that meeting.  Once again, the exchanges among participants will expand our thinking about a wide range of issues and lead to other new realizations.

Appropriately, some participants in the first conference wanted more exploration and more daring.  Some asked, did we think big enough?  Did we grapple with how to redesign governance in the 21st century?   There is much more to consider.
If you think that you can come up with bigger ideas, ask about joining the conversation in September, 2010.  But be advised, it is not a competition.  It is a collaborative effort to shape the future of local government.