The Case for Citizen Think-Tanks

The Case for Citizen Think Tanks

Not in all communities, but in many communities, there is a growing sense of confusion, frustration, and even anger in America, and it takes its form at the street level upon which most Americans live their lives. The confusion is larger than what any one mind can grasp. It races like a dark shadow ahead of us into our futures, and most of us sense that we can do little more than try to ignore it. Situations which seem too complex to understand remain obscure. We don’t want even to talk about them because we don’t want to feel responsible for thinking about them. We impulsively sense that some will win, and others will lose, and that our tightest circle of like-minded spirits is our greatest hope for weathering the storm. Fundamentalism, of both the civic and the spiritual form, holds us in its grasp this way.

Along with the confusion comes the fracturing. Each church that strengthens its identity unavoidably secures its boundaries. Each labor union that speaks for the special advantages of its own members unavoidably speaks against those of different unions, or those who are not within a union. Each special interest that raises its voice in an appeal for relief masks appeals from other special interests. And each culture, pressed upon by the unspoken mandates for convergence toward a greater cultural norm, senses the loss of its traditions and sets its heels to resist the pull for change. The ideal of “We-The-People” collides with the felt reality of the “Them-and-Us.” We cannot be one people if we cannot think, and then also feel, as one people. But where does this thinking happen? No one can do it for us if we do not participate ourselves. How can we think through the gathering complexities together?

We too often confuse learning with thinking. We equate teaching with explaining. Teaching is all about sharing thoughts about the way that we can think about things. These thoughts travel under various names. Some call them our mental models. Others call them our schema or our frameworks. Still others call them our theories for how the world works. Each model is like the knowledge of the rules for how a knight moves on a chessboard. Or how a bishop moves. Or how a rook or a queen moves. Even for the options for moving as a pawn. The rules for how to move make sense in the game of chess, yet in life we soon learn that there is no level and unchanging chessboard. The options for moving carried within our corresponding mental models are fluid. Swimming within this deep fluidity, we long for a sense of structure. We can see, and we can largely navigate, the waves cresting immediately around us, but we cannot see the safe harbors upon the distant shores.

It is our impulse to cling together. The impulse is written into our DNA. We are not solitary as individuals in the human species. We are, on first reflex, familial, and then tribal. We crave the liberty to move and also the commitments to remain bound to something central in our lives. We are built to orbit each other, like heavenly bodies tethered together with unseen social gravity. And we move together, not alone and lonely, adrift on a starless night, but woven together with navigating stories of our experienced or imagined lives together. Over time, we get stories wrong. We set ourselves up for beliefs that place us at odds with each other. Yes. there are frictions when spirits move and rub against each other in the busy marketplace of life. The frictions can warm us, and they can burn us. They leave hope, or they leave scars, in the stories that linger among us. We have to get our stories right if we are to get our shared community right. And we do have the choice to shape our stories as certainly as we have a destiny to be shaped by our stories. But do we see the connection? Do we see that our confusion is very much a part of how our stories lead us to understand or to misunderstand the world around us? Systems are complex, sure enough. But it is our stories which provide us with the lens through which we see the world. If our lens is distorted, so too is our vision of the world. And if we live in a distorted sense of the world, we rub up against profound confusions.

We, citizens of our communities, ultimately hold the responsibility for the story that either unites us or divides us. We, as citizens, can choose to work for unifying stories or for divisive stories. The divisive stories are easiest. There are thousands of ways that a community can fracture. The unifying stories are difficult. At any moment in time, there are only a narrow set of ways that our hopes can inclusively converge. Our habits for authoring divisive stories work against our capacity for co-authoring inclusive stories. Our inclusive stories need an inclusively co-authored script. Co-authoring is, and has long been, difficult. We tend to get caught up in our language, and leave important unexplored meanings behind. The convergent story cannot begin with swapping our individual frameworks for what the future should be. We are not in a position to teach each other about the proper path into the uncertain future. We need to learn from each other. We need to think together. We need to think from a foundation of the experiences we have lived as we travel the same streets in our communities. This is not a business of swapping models. It is a business of sharing observations, and discovering how we can agree that the observations are connected in the fabric of who we are constantly becoming.

Where does the business of inclusively weaving a new story happen in our community? Our leadership models are anchored to the role of “story-givers.” Whether our leaders lead from behind, as feudal lords, or lead from the front, as heroic warriors, we are longing for the leadership that comes from the middle. We are longing for the leadership that can bring the frontiers of our many aspirations together around the core of our valued beliefs. We are looking for the story that emerges from among us.

Our tradition for thinking about the future is largely a matter of remembering and applying frameworks for what has worked in the past. A problem exists when the world churns and changes, and the frameworks of the past no longer apply. We have to respond to the heavy challenge of thinking up new frameworks. Anyone can participate in crafting a new framework, but we generally doubt our collective capacity, our collective credibility, and our collective legitimacy for inclusively co-designing the future. As a result, most new frameworks will be imposed upon us by remote think-tanks. All those who hold dear the notion of life-long learning will share convergent interests in enabling local, citizen-centered think-tanks. All who hold hope for new frameworks which are crafted with bottom-up wisdom can appreciate the false hope that comes from surveying citizen thoughts and then retreating into expert-centered design. If we get the questions wrong, we get the frameworks wrong. No single citizen knows all of the questions that need to be asked. Yet collectively, citizens can ask each other questions which experts cannot sense. Citizens can learn from each other in ways that experts cannot. Citizens can think together in ways that cannot be duplicated nor effectively substituted.

For a community to have its own street-level, citizen think-tank, it first needs to have its own citizen-centered civic forum. A forum does not tell citizens what to think, but it guides them to discover what they should be thinking about. A citizen forum without a path to a think tank loses its muscle; and a citizen think-tank without the wisdom from a forum loses its way.

Much as communities of the 20th century have valued libraries as a means of supporting informed citizens, today communities of the 21st century need local think-tanks. These think tanks will have to be sophisticated research instruments if they are to serve their need. Just as libraries require skillful curators to accumulate and display relevant information, think tanks will require skillful support for accumulating and displaying relevant citizen thinking. The working engine of citizen think tanks will need to combine and refine artistic inquiry, scientific principles, engineering skills, journalistic capacities, and civic spirit. This function will not replace other forms of civic discussion, such as town halls or campaign debates. It will, however, provide substance that will help citizens make better use of such deliberative traditions.

It might be quicker and easier to enable a think tank as an event without taking on concerns about its sustainable use. However, our crisis of uncertainty calls for a deeply anchored community commitment to a sustainable future. The commitment that is needed is a commitment to work together to give birth to a living, breathing, and inclusively thinking civic institutional capacity. The new institutional life form can start small, but it cannot afford to be ignored as it seeks to find its way into the fabric of our lives.

It will not be easy to institutionalize citizen think-tanks. Support from formal, hierarchical governance swings from season to season. At times, collective insights from citizens are welcomed. At other times, leaders can distrust views constructed by citizens. Citizen initiatives might be sensed as conspiratorial, radical, or even revolutionary. They may be seen as implicitly projecting ambitious expectations for administrative response. As formal leaders swap in and out of leadership roles, a think tank from a prior season, which might have been difficult to construct, can be hastily dissolved. Enduring non-political, non-partisan sponsorship is essential for assuring the local legitimacy and sustainability of both the civic forum and the citizen think tank.

Communities need sponsors who are willing and able to coax citizen think tanks into existence. And these sponsors will need to build a coalition of support in the community. Coalition building can be eased through a network for exchanging experiences among those who are struggling with the same civic challenges. Universities and colleges can help build and coordinate exchanges through such networks. Think tanks might make use of some of the institutional infrastructure existing within universities and colleges.   And colleges and universities might also contribute human resources for supporting and eventually leading civic think tanks, as well as training students for assuming such roles.

All visions need to begin with a model that illustrates what might be. The vision for a citizen-centered think tank is difficult to communicate in words. It is an experienced phenomenon. It takes courage to support an experience in the hope of capturing a game-changing understanding. The notion of democracy, itself, presents a similar challenge. Only when one experiences an authentic democratic governance system, with all of its privilege and responsibility, can one hope to understand the essential and challenging role that must be played by informed citizens.

The story of the American democratic tradition is one of those stories that we tell and re-tell ourselves. In the vision of Benjamin Franklin, our national experiment with democracy was a work-in-progress from its very origins. The story doesn’t provide immutable evidence of the perfect wisdom of our forefathers. Our world has changed as we entered the Information Age. Expertise now diffuses from the few toward the many. The power of advocacy is eroding as expertise declines. Information flows alongside misinformation. Tactics for managing citizens as objects are evolving toward tactics for engaging citizens as subjects. An old culture of telling is seeking to find a new balance with a culture of asking. We struggle with rising complexity and community fragmentation. Our democracy calls out for an institutional upgrade. It calls for better ways to hear and understand the situations experienced by citizens living at street-level. These experiences need to be assembled into a coherent story, and the story needs to be broadly validated at community level. These stories cannot afford to be filtered through partisan lenses.   A great deal of the future rests in our decisions today to support or to withhold support for citizen think tanks. Everything depends upon this decision.