Good Government Requires Good Citizenship
In a self-governing society, government is only as good as we make it.
Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Our ultimate goal is to understand the critical role of citizenship in a free and flourishing civilization (Part 3 - you are here). To do that, we need to understand government as an organization (Part 2). To do that, we need to understand organizations in general (Part 1).
It’s 6:15 pm on a brisk Thursday evening in San Francisco. I’m riding the bus home from work in the financial district. I like to sit by the window and watch the city as I go. We pass south through Union Square, a prominent shopping area and tourist hotspot. Each retailer has security guards stationed outside, but it doesn’t even seem strange to me anymore. We continue south and then stop just after crossing Market Street. The sidewalks are busy. People heading home from work, concert goers getting ready for a night out, shoppers dipping in and out of stores. But in the middle of the crowd waiting for the bus is a bench, and on that bench are two people who aren’t on their way anywhere. They’re folded over in a heap, surrounded by a tattered suitcase and small piles of trash. They’re desperately unwell, but no one reacts. The bystanders do nothing, but of course there’s nothing to do. Heartbreaking, frustrating. The passengers stream around the bench and onto the bus. Just like that, the doors close and we’re off again heading down 4th Street through SOMA. When we’re stopped by traffic, a dismal reality resumes. The sidewalk is lined by a row of tents. They part only to accommodate a chopshop, where I can see at least five bike frames in various states of decomposition and one e-bike which looks brand new. I know where these came from. A man in ragged clothes sits next to his tent and tends an open fire perilously close to mounds of garbage and other items. I feel a familiar heat rise inside of me. How do we let this happen to him? To us? The light changes and we’re off again. The scene changes; the feeling doesn’t. Why can't our government fix this? A few blocks down we’re stopped again and the metaphorical abyss I was staring into becomes literal as I peer through a smashed window into the back seat of a gray SUV parked along the curb. This is so obviously an insult to our city, our country, to the very concept of civilization. My attention drifts toward names in city hall. These people. It's their fault. It's them and the people who elected them. Fury turns to dismay as I think about the prospects for change. The next election will be no different, the candidates will be no better, the same promises will be made and then broken, nothing will change. Something must change. And then I’m at my stop. As I walk from the bus stop to my apartment, I vent my indignation into the chilly SF breeze so I can be present with my girlfriend and enjoy a nice dinner together after a long day.
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If you haven’t walled yourself off in nihilistic detachment, this story might sound familiar. Whether it’s a firsthand experience locally or a frontpage scandal nationally, it ends the same. Shocked by the glaring wrongness, we grasp angrily for anyone who may be responsible, but settle into cynicism and dismay as we realize the prospects for improvement are bleak. This is the democracy doom loop, and it can’t continue. But how do we break out?
Don’t Miss The Point
The first thing to realize is that these stories of explicit government failure contain an implicit model of citizenship that is broken. Because, as Theodore Roosevelt told us:
The government is us; we are the government, you and I.
This is not just cheery sentiment from simpler times; it is literally true. A government of, by, and for the people will only be as good as the people make it. I am people. If I’m not making it good, who is? The price of a flourishing, free society is competence and engagement. In other words, good government requires good citizenship.
We will come to feel what that really means using the systematic, organizational perspective laid out in Part 1 and Part 2. What will we find if we look at the institution of government through the lens of citizenship? Let’s start with another look at that bus ride.
Was it fair for me to feel upset about what I saw? Absolutely. But what should I do about it? I care about my city and my government so I vote in elections. I read voter guides and synthesize their recommendations to make my choices. It takes several hours each election cycle. According to our current cultural understanding of citizenship, I’m doing my part. But where does that really leave me? I know who the mayor is. I know the Board of Supervisors is important but I can’t quite remember the name of my district Supervisor. It’s not clear exactly what any of them do although I catch glimpses of the machine from news articles and tweets. My model of government looks something like this:
In the terms of our model, I provide inputs to government when I vote (and pay taxes). I know some of the top level agents (representatives) although I don’t know much about what they do. I know very little about the agents and bureaucracies beyond that, nor much of the coordination and operation that happens internally, but I definitely know that the governance output is desperately inadequate.
Is this enough? Once we fully understand the dependence of government on its citizens, we will see that this is a perilously small amount to know about the institution to which we have entrusted stewardship of our civilization.1
The Role of Citizens in Government
In Part 1 we established the tools for organizational literacy and in Part 2 we used them to show that government is not a black box. We can now use this frame to clarify the role of citizens in government.
Question 1: What is this thing supposed to do? What is the purpose?
As Teddy said, “we are the government”. That means citizens decide the purpose of government. When the founding fathers sketched a vision of self-government, the underlying belief was that normal citizens could decide something of such importance. Now that might feel like the distant past, but it is not. The process of deciding our purpose is eternal. Even if the federal constitution hasn’t changed in some time, many important things have. The current San Francisco City Charter was adopted in 1996 and there are rumblings that another edition is due. Who will write and adopt that new charter? We will, you and I. Nothing can stop you except apathy.
If it is true that citizens decide the purpose of government, then it would seem important to know what the purpose of government is and carefully consider what it ought to be. And yet who has read the Constitution? It’s only about 8000 words. Who has read the SF charter? These fundamental responsibilities aren’t even in the conversation (for now).
Question 2: Who is in charge? Who are the agents?
Along with the “othering” of government in general, politicians have come to feel like a completely distinct, perhaps even reptilian2 class of people. But alas, our elected representatives are just citizens who we have chosen to represent us. Remember that the only reason they have power is because we gave it to them. Because citizens elect the most powerful agents. And they’re not that far away from us, especially at the local level. You can just go talk to them. Show up at a meeting, shake their hand, ask a question, share an idea.
Let’s work backward from there. Ideally we’d know them before we elected them, but most of us don’t even vote consistently let alone know the candidates. As a rough heuristic, we might see 66% of eligible voters turnout for presidential elections but less than 50% for midterms, and only 33% for special elections.3 Regardless, when election season comes around it often seems like none of the candidates are good.
While it’s true that we get to vote on the candidates, who is choosing the candidates? We need to go earlier in the process - primaries and endorsements. Primary turnout is usually less than 20%. And in non partisan elections like in SF, political clubs act as kingmakers by issuing endorsements and boosting name recognition.4 In effect, many of the most important decisions are made before we start paying attention.
But even if we’re paying attention, how close are we really looking? So far we’ve discussed how citizens choose representatives, but our model of government also shows us that those elected officials (top level agents) appoint other influential agents. This is useful to know about for two reasons:
One is because they wield power in government. We, citizens, delegated power to our elected officials and also to their appointees. Since it is ultimately our power, we need to look after it. Who is wielding your power in government?
Additionally, appointing decisions can help us evaluate the agents we elected. Who do they surround themselves with?
Question 3: Who actually has authority? How is agency allocated?
Good citizenship requires more than being able to identify our representatives and their appointees. To earn the expectation of good government, we must be able to evaluate their claims and their performance so that we can vote responsibly. This means citizens must differentiate agents from agency. Less abstractly, the Mayor we elect simply inherits the agency we have assigned to the office of the Mayor.5 So if we want to know how well they’re doing, we must know what they’re actually able to do.
When things aren’t working, we want to know who to blame. We’ve been doing a lot of blaming lately but things don’t seem to get better. What’s up with that? We’re having the wrong conversation. We know that political candidates will promise to fix our problems; we know they will blame their opponents or “the system” when they can’t; and we know their political opponents will do the same. The incentives are clear, if a bit disappointing. Regardless, it doesn’t seem to be working and this is because we are stuck playing a game of personality politics when many of our problems are systemic. By looking beyond the agents to the allocation of agency throughout the organization, we can start to see the bigger picture. This makes us powerful in two ways:
First, as mentioned, we are able to choose better agents when we can determine whether they actually have the authority and therefore the responsibility to execute their claims. We can set reasonable expectations and enforce them much more stringently. We can also make sense of how they coordinate the institutional elements under their control.
Second, we can allocate agency better, because citizens allocate agency. This happens when citizens vote to adopt a charter which specifies the powers of the Mayor. This also happens when the citizens are called on to act as the legislature, like in California where citizens vote on ballot propositions. Some of these ballot props amend the charter to change the distribution of agency, like when voters chose to create a new commission in SF. This means that citizens are directly involved in organizational coordination which is impossible to do responsibly without a broader sense of the whole.6
Question 4: How well is it doing what it’s supposed to do? How is agency being used?
This is how citizens close the loop on accountability. Once we know who the agents are and what agency they have, we can evaluate how well they’re using that agency. In other words, once we can set accurate expectations, we can be much more critical about whether they’re being met.
For one thing, we can assess how competently agents use their authority to add/modify/delete the bureaucratic work processes which turn tax dollars into government services. If we know something about these bureaucratic operations, we can follow the flow of resources through the system. This is important because citizens provide the inputs and receive the outputs of government. The effectiveness with which the bureaucracies turn those inputs into outputs should inform the many decisions we make.
For instance, it should affect who we vote for. It can also reveal problems with the allocation of agency in the system (Question 3, also discussed in Part 2). Additionally, in places like California, citizens can vote directly on ballot propositions that change the resource flows into the system. How do we know if that bond measure/tax increase is a good choice if we don’t understand how the money actually gets used? It’s one thing to say “money is being wasted,” it’s another to know which agents and which ballot props create problems or offer solutions. This is the responsibility of a good citizen.
Ultimately, with this level of understanding we can move beyond nebulous discontent and begin to diagnose specific organizational problems. This in turn informs the way we vote and manage resources going into and moving through the organization.
Drawing Conclusions on the Nature of Citizenship
When we look with disapproval on the state of government, what we really see are the many structures and functions that have decayed in the absence of good citizenship. We talk a lot about government accountability, but who is government accountable to? You and me. How can we possibly provide that accountability if we don’t know who is governing us, what they’re supposed to do, what they’re allowed to do, or how well they’re doing it?
The view of government through an organizational lens is clear. We decide the purpose. We provide the inputs and receive the outputs. We choose the agents and give them agency. We can see into the system to watch how agents coordinate and bureaucracies operate if only we decide to look. As we begin to see the system whole, the many leverage points uniquely accessible to citizens become apparent. The plain conclusion is that any system of free, self-government ultimately depends on the quality and effort of its citizens.7 Free society is not the default state of nature; it’s only a republic if you can keep it.
What does all this mean for you and for me? It means citizenship is a lot more than we’ve settled for. It’s not just reading a voter guide every couple years. Citizenship is applied organizational literacy; it’s recognizing and using the agency you’ve always had.8 The path to good citizenship is already available to you, though it can be hard to find. This will take effort, but we’re working to make it easier. Excellent guides are emerging and we’re mapping the trail. It’s urgent, it’s important, and it’s fun. I’m asking you to start walking.
The Places You’ll Go
It’s 6:15 pm on a brisk Thursday evening in San Francisco. I’m on the bus but I’m not heading home, I’m riding down Market Street. I’m on my way to a public safety town hall hosted by my district Supervisor along with the District Attorney, City Attorney, and a captain from SFPD. I’m going to ask them directly about the problems our city is facing and what they plan to do about them. I’m ready to ask good questions and I’ll be able to understand their answers. I already know who they are and I’m starting to get a good feel for what they’re supposed to do, what authority they have, and how they’re choosing to use it. This is one of many events I’ve attended in the last several months. You see, I realized that angry bus rides won’t build a flourishing civilization. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how the city government works. I joined my neighborhood association and now I’m tapped into what’s happening in my community. I joined my local democratic club and attended an event where I met my State Senator and asked him about housing. I’ve spent several evenings at Manny’s, where I’ve met everyone from Andrew Yang to Barbara Lee. I took a trip down to City Hall with some friends and sat in on a Board of Supervisors meeting. I watched a few of them online too. When I didn’t understand part of the meeting, I found a number for the Clerk of the Board and gave them a call. They were delighted to fill me in. This is my government and it is not a black box. It’s a messy machine that you and I operate, and I’m ready to start doing my part. Join me. Join us.
And so we end where we began, but hopefully with a deeper sense of what it means to say that good government requires good citizenship.
Why didn’t I know this? It’s not an excuse for not knowing, but aren’t our schools supposed to produce good citizens? Why was I never taught this? How did I make it through 16+ years of school without ever learning something so important? Now consider that almost everyone else is in the same position as me. Starting to see the problem?
The fact that name recognition is so important is another indictment of our current model of citizenship. Notice that in every political conversation, it is assumed that citizens can’t or won’t understand.
This 2020 ballot prop was a disaster and was largely reversed in the next election by another ballot prop in 2022. Well-intentioned voters make bad decisions when they don’t have a strong mental model of government. In general, we completely miss the forest and only barely see the trees.
This has another interesting implication: There is no reason to believe any other kind of self-governing system would fix the problem of poor citizenship that we have in our representative democracy. Direct democracy is even more reliant on competent citizens since they are effectively the legislature. Democratic socialism centralizes even more power in government, so electing good leaders and maintaining accountability is even more important. You end up with only two options: fix citizenship and self-government or give up on good citizenship and revert to authoritarianism. Not on my watch.
This entire argument could be expressed in terms of systems and the evolutionary process of adaptive complexity. To navigate the world and survive in any given niche, organisms (systems) maintain and update internal models of the outside world. If those models diverge too far from reality, the organism can’t predict and respond to its environment, meaning it is less “fit” and less likely to survive. Applied to citizens, if we don’t have a strong internal model of government, we can’t interact with it effectively. And since our government only works if citizens maintain it, we’re at risk of collapse (See Mobus and Azarian).