NCOC Featured Discussion

What is the Role of Big Citizenship in Social Innovation and Change?

by Stephen Goldsmith

April 1, 2010
Last week, NCoC announced our 2010 Annual Conference theme, “BIG Citizenship: Citizens as Catalysts and Innovators.” Stephen Goldsmith weighs in on the role of social innovation in fostering approaches to big citizenship to empower citizens and communities.

In our new book, The Power of Social Innovation , we argue that social innovations can ignite change across existing social service systems—best characterized as well–intentioned but often marked by inertia, attention to inputs rather than outcomes, and political wrangling.

We also suggest that big citizenship is necessary to power social innovation and progress in three key ways.

The first lever—one that I have seen both in my former job of mayor and currently as chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service—is a new pipeline that better cultivates and connects volunteer goodwill into real impact. Aaron Hurst, for example, started the Taproot Foundation to strengthen nonprofit organizations by helping them secure pro bono professional services in marketing, information technology, human resources, and strategic planning. Taproot has recruited and organized eight thousand professionals to do 555,000 hours of service on more than eight hundred projects for five hundred nonprofit clients.

Experience Corps, a national service program for older Americans, has mobilized two thousand retired baby boomers to volunteer their time toward social problems such as literacy. A recent study from Washington University found that students with Experience Corps tutors made better than 60 percent more progress in reading skills over a single year than non–participating students.

Second, citizens must move from passive recipients of public services to active participants in civic life. We can do this by giving citizens—as clients—a greater voice in determining and evaluating the servces they receive. Take an example from digital media; on sites like students can anonymously evaluate providers (in this case, teachers) for other students to see.

Active citizenship also requires demanding innovation and reform in how their communities address social problems. Civic entrepreneurs like Michael Lomax of United Negro College Fund, Sara Horowitz of Freelancers' Union, Jonah Edelman of Stand for Children, and others are combing traditional grassroots campaigning with creative, strategic thinking and an orientation towards measurable impact. Stand for Children mobilizes citizens—especially the parents of schoolchildren—to hold their elected officials accountable around education issues.

Third, creative social entrepreneurs often rely on big citizenship in their theory of change. Instead of trying to mitigate the symptoms of poverty, they equip individuals with the access and support they need to participate in our market–based economy—from which they have often been excluded. After twenty years in human services, Maurice Miller grew disillusioned with needs–based approaches that fragment responses, lead people down the path of dependency, and give residents neither voice nor choice. So he started the Family Independence Initiative, which relies on family and community networks to subvert traditional notions of social work and how we fight poverty. By convening a small cohort of families and incenting them to record positive behaviors, FII helps families help themselves. In their San Francisco pilot, participating households increased their income by 20% while 70% of children improved their grades.

Teaching a person to fish, done correctly, can be uplifting and supportive, not lecturing and condescending. I learned this lesson early in my public career, when I met with a small group of mothers who were receiving child support for the first time thanks to our enforcement efforts. This was before the 1996 national welfare reforms, and I wanted to see how upset they would be about the possibility that their welfare payments might stop if we succeeded in getting the dads to pay what they owed. Not one of the mothers complained. Instead they explained that they did need help with child care, transportation, or education, but they all wanted a job rather than a government check.

The National Conference on Citizenship's call for big citizenship is not just valuable in its own right, i.e. for our civic health, social capital building, or vibrant democracy. Big citizenship is critical for solving real, seemingly intractable social problems that affect every community and millions of Americans across the country.

Stephen Goldsmith is former mayor of Indianapolis, chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service under presidents Bush and Obama, and Daniel Paul Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School. He is author, with Gigi Georges and Tim Glynn Burke, of the new book The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good (Jossey–Bass/Wiley March 2010).
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