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What I’m Proudest Of

Today I’m happy to announce the new initiative I’m proudest of – and to ask for your help and involvement.

On October 19-21, I’ll be cosponsoring with my undergrad alma mater, Brown University, the first annual “Greater Good” conference, Democracy, Citizenship, and the Greater Good: Charting a Path in Changing Times, part of a larger, long-term effort aimed at the future.

Several years ago, my friend Tracy Sefl urged me to think about a fellowship at the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which I had attended, or at UChicago, where I teach. That got me thinking, however, about what such an Institute might look like at Brown, where I’d also taught several years earlier in the public policy program. I liked the IOP concept of bringing fellows of diverse backgrounds to campus to interact with each other, permanent faculty, and students in a robust and creative way. It fit well with Brown’s basic interdisciplinary approach – and, given the collapsing boundaries I see ahead between “government” and non-governmental entities, I felt “public policy” studies should embrace a far wider range of subjects than the typical MPP curriculum.

I began to think about an “Institute” bringing together scholars across all disciplines to ponder how their fields could better address issues of social impact … of the “greater good.” I particularly want to encourage college students to think seriously about how their eventual lives and intellectual pursuits could contribute to the greater good, whatever their professional goals. And my own interests have gravitated in recent years away from contemporary public policy questions, like how best to means-test entitlements (the subject of my “master’s thesis” at the K-School) toward deeper factors producing the recurring tragedies, wrongs, and follies of human history (on which I’m piloting a course this coming winter, as I’ll discuss in a future update): I’m looking to create a place to think longer, deeper, and with others on these issues instead of just the press of today’s policy challenges.

The result was a proposal for something tentatively entitled the “Brown Institute for the Greater Good,” or BIGG. While trying to figure out how to make BIGG a reality, something else occurred.

When I merged my consulting firm, Public Works, into Sequoia Consulting Group last year, I intended, besides expanding my teaching and writing, to take the stuff I’ve been teaching and writing about and launch an effort to make new models of sustainable public goods work in the here-and-now.

So, last summer, I wrote up a concept paper, and asked a few friends with diverse backgrounds – in social ventures, finance, technology, non-profits, public policy – to spend an afternoon sitting around my house brainstorming how to turn the crazy idea of a “government biz” into an actual, economically-sustainable business venture. I invited ten people, figuring that three or four might agree to help me as a personal favor; to my surprise, they all wanted to come join the discussion. Given the enthusiastic response, I invited a few more. And a few more. Until we wound up with a 25-person, two-day “retreat” at my home.

Some of my former students came and presented papers they wrote for my course, on for-profit business models to bring healthy meals to food deserts or create private peace-keeping forces. Congressman Dwight Evans described his efforts to bring creative financial, education and nutrition programs to poorer areas of Philadelphia. Kyle Zimmer talked about the self-sustaining model of her organization, First Book, that has helped millions of poor kids across America. And a colleague of fellow Brown alums Laura Germino and Gregg Asbed gave a presentation on the market-driven private enforcement system they created to protect farmworkers.

I set aside the last hour for everyone to name the single best idea to come out of all this.  I thought people would suggest I focus my “government biz” first on college affordability, or health care.  Instead, everyone focused more on the broader discussion and wanted to make this gathering into an annual conference on the “greater good.”

So, while I’m still working on launching the “government biz” (more on that in a future update), I also approached Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service, which readily agreed to host and co-sponsor this event as the first small step toward my eventual BIGG goal. And the rest, as they say is – or hopefully will be – history.

The conference agenda is below. We’d love to have you join us for 44 hours of exciting dialogue in Providence this October 19-21. And we need your input on who else you know (or know of) who would like to come or ought to be invited to participate in this endeavor. Please help us make this conference both “greater” and “good” by getting involved in whatever way you can!

As always, I look forward to hearing from you.


Democracy, Citizenship, and

the Greater Good:

Charting a Path in Changing Times

The mechanisms by which societies govern themselves – how they define, create, promote, and defend the “Greater Good” – will be increasingly refashioned and dispersed, and increasingly “multi-polar,” in the 21st Century. Technological advances are changing the ways that people can aggregate with or separate from others, thus changing the nature of “society” and “government.” They are reducing marginal costs and creating new markets, making some things profitable that used to be unprofitable, and others unprofitable that used to be highly profitable – making it possible for some things that used to be thought of as the proper domains of private enterprise to become potentially collective, social or public activities, and vice versa. They’re reducing the importance of location, and to some extent time; they’re changing the relative value of tangible and intangible resources.

All of these changes are profoundly changing all aspects of human society and culture, on both the level of the lived daily experiences of individuals and the level of societies, nations, and the world itself. The “Greater Good” conference is a part of addressing these larger concerns. Our interest is in looking deeply and interdisciplinary, at how the means for addressing and promoting the Greater Good may be changing in today’s world – and that includes the “technology” of how we, as multiple individuals, collectively interact and govern ourselves – and how to address and adapt to those changes.

It thus conceives of “public policy” as something potentially broader than governmental action – in the sense of public entities or nation-states – and looks at “governance” of the human enterprise as potentially encompassing non-governmental, for-profit, non-territorial, non-profit, and as-yet-undreamed-of mechanisms. Our interest is what such changes are coming in the 21st Century, how they will increase or decrease the possibilities for human progress and well-being, and – crucially, in distinguishing this from other “futurism” discussions – what we should and (because of such changes themselves) can do to either “ride this wave” or “bend this curve” so as best to promote the Greater Good.

Day 1: Thursday, October 19, 2017 – Breaking Things Apart

6:00 – 10:00  Welcome Event and Dinner

6:00 – 6:30    Reception w/ drinks and hors d’oeuvres

6:30 – 8:30   Dinner


6:30- 7:00   Introductory Remarks

Eric B. Schnurer & Mathew Johnson, PhD

7:00-8:30   Opening Debate

Defending Democracy & the Future of the Public Good

Brown President Christina Paxson has defined “Defending Democracy” as the challenge for Brown University to face in 2017. But what does this mean? What are the threats that we’re “defending” against today? Political dysfunction – ideological polarization, gerrymandering, money politics, gridlock – and resulting public disaffection? Rising authoritarianism at home and worldwide? Technology (plus the above actors) undermining the mechanics of, and faith in, the institutions of democracy? Technology imposing an undemocratic and non-private world on all of us?

These are all important – but also subsets of the larger changes that are changing the nature of societal governance in such a way that what we think of as “democracy” – collective decisions made through free and broadly open political mechanisms – is declining in efficacy. But before we can say that democracy is in danger and needs defending, we need to think more about what “democracy” means (is it just a political concept?) and what is the greater good we aim to achieve through democracy? Maybe “democracy” is declining or expiring in some ways, but expanding in other, newer ways. Technology is “democratizing” force, authority, and many other forms of power: To what extent does the decline of “political democracy” matter if it’s (and is it?) being offset by the rise of “non-political” forms of democracy? These are all questions we’ll explore in this opening debate as we prepare to address the future of “the Greater Good.”

8:30-10:00   Guests welcome to remain and network

Day 2: Friday, October 20, 2017 – Looking in Depth


9:00 – 9:30  Keynote Address

Technological Change, Government, and the Greater Good

Technological change is what’s driving the “future of government” and the demise of current governance structures. Technology is changing the most profound aspects of humanity – and human society. It’s not simply changing the nature of politics within the existing governance paradigm – it’s changing the governance (and thus “Greater Good”) paradigm. So, what is all this technological change? What are the implications for “government” – or, more broadly, for collective and societal efforts to promote the Greater Good? And is it good or bad? We cannot talk about the Greater Good in the future without understanding these changes, which means understanding these technologies.

9:30-11:30   Panel One

Big Data: Power, Peril & Possibilities

Data are increasingly the currency of 21st Century power. Control over data is opening up tremendous possibilities for advance – and abuse – in both the public and private sectors: What does privacy mean in a world of activity trackers, Smart Houses, and social media? How is data being used to advance public welfare; how are we putting ourselves at risk? What does it mean to have data in private hands, and do we know how it is being used to promote both public welfare and private profits? Technology also has tremendous potential to drive new and inspiring ways of addressing longstanding systemic problems; in this panel, we also will hear from leaders in Brown’s efforts to make data more useful in delivery of government services, and technologists and thinkers in government who must balance public-sector gains against private/individual concerns.

11:30 – 1:00  Lunch Break


1:00- 2:30   Panel Two

Public Sector Innovation: Can Government Be Saved?

Government, like any other sector, is increasingly feeling the pressure of efficiency and the drive toward streamlined services. At the same time, budget pressures and hiring freezes have led to more and more services traditionally offered by the government being delivered by non-public providers. Before we turn, in the third session, to the role of non-public entities in providing public goods, this session will examine current public sector innovation; efforts to improve governmental service provision; and the tensions between public- versus private-sector provision in terms of efficiency, client orientation, service delivery, and doing more with less.

We’ll explore both what are the opportunities, and challenges, in having government face the same drivers as the private sector – and, the flip side, as private ventures increasingly assume public functions, how do we maintain public oversight? What are the tradeoffs of efficiency and democratic accountability, of equity and market forces? Issues include outsourcing and its oversight; streamlining and waste reduction; metrics and “pay for performance”; and the role of technology in enhancing government performance.

2:30- 3:00   Break

3:00 – 4:45   Panel Three

Public Good Beyond the Public Sector

Technology, and related changes in economics and ideologies, are changing the ability of governments to deliver public goods and shape social progress. The Trump Administration – and most governments at the state level – are actively taking a hatchet to government in ways that are likely to have longer-term ramifications. So, in the Trump era, a discussion about non-governmental options for pursuing the public good and the ends of “public policy” is even more essential and immediate.   How might progressive values, social progress, and public goods be promoted and pursued in a Brave New World where governments are in retreat? How might we achieve the same ends through non-governmental – for-profit, non-profit, social venture, and as-yet-unimagined – ways?

This session will focus on finding new models to make “doing good” happen on its own, rather than just through remediative efforts like government programs or traditional charity, which technology is making that both necessary (as it destroys traditional social governance models) and possible (as it creates new capabilities to bring people together, to monetize and capture benefits, to coordinate and incentivize). In fact, all sorts of entities are increasingly finding ways to effect long-term change for the Greater Good, including using technology in smart and unique ways to create social innovations.

4:45-5  Closing Remarks and Thematic Wrap-Up: 

Alan Harlam, Director of Social Innovation,Swearer Center for Public Service

5:00-6:00   Reception/Social Networking

6:00-onward   Dinner on your own

Day 3: Saturday, October 20, 2017 – Putting It All Together

9:00 – 10:00   Networking Breakfast


10:00 – 11:15   Panel Four

We will draw the the conference themes together – the changing nature of democracy and public policy in the face of technological change, and the resulting emerging responses in not just the public but also the private and “third” sectors – through their application in a specific policy area: in this case, the issue dominating the US political system in 2017, health care. We will discuss possible public policy alternatives to the abandonment of Obamacare and a federal role – as well as the ability (and, in fact, increasing reality) of innovative, Greater Good-oriented insurers and providers – not just government – to drive these changes through the market.


11:15 – 12:30   Up and Coming Innovators

This session is an opportunity to hear from students and recent graduates whose innovations have been making waves. They are thinking beyond simple tax structures and are examples of the future of public good innovation – optimistic thinking that builds corporate responsibility into the business model from the ground up.

12:30 – 2:00   Closing Interactive Discussion over Lunch

Panel moderators will participate in a reflective dialogue about the themes of the conference. What questions arose in the various panels that remain unanswered? What ideas sparked further thinking? What synergies were created? What do you hope people will carry forward?


Hinges of History

As you know, for the past several years, I’ve been writing about the challenges of illiberal and antidemocratic forces, rising alienation of the failing middle class, and technological changes making governance and social cohesion increasingly difficult. I’m starting to shift more toward trying to sketch out solutions, and actually creating new initiatives that, in their own small ways, may – in the words of an old colleague, Bill Drayton – make a “scratch on history.”

The next few updates will be unveiling the new platforms and initiatives I’ve been working on that I hope will help make more of a contribution. In this update, I want to start with several articles I’ve written recently that begin to spell out the framework for those efforts.

In a prior update, I mentioned my recent trip to Brussels, where I visited both the battlefield of Waterloo and the headquarters of the European Commission. In A Modern Waterloo, I described how a high-ranking Euro bureaucrat responded to my questions about the opposition to European (and, more generally, global) integration with the retort, “It doesn’t matter.” Similarly, “the great and good of Europe could congratulate themselves after Waterloo that the revolt of the lower orders, well, it didn’t matter”:

Those who believed that Waterloo meant they could now get back to ruling subject populations as they had for the previous half-millennium were therefore soon to be sorely disappointed…. The democratizing aspirations of the deplorables so feared by the aristocracy ultimately proved to be not only on the right side of history but also right.

That we’re at the end of another similar fin de siècle is evident even in such seemingly-quotidian issues as the never-ending health care struggle, which, I argued in Life after Obamacare, is really the last battle of the last century and the politics of the welfare state: “[I]n today’s polarized either/or environment, both parties are locked … in a duel to the death between a pre-20th Century vision of a market unpoliced by government and a mid-20th Century vision of government supplanting the market.” Other alternatives will soon overtake both positions “that better reflect the direction the world is headed – one of weakened states where other entities, including businesses, provide more and more of what used to be thought of as government services.”

Is there hope of resolution in this increasingly polarized society? Yes, but perhaps in diversity more than consensus – if we can learn to live with that. In an Independence Day riff on a Harvard Business Review study (of all things), I spent some time musing on How environmental factors affect our politics. The study discussed in the HBR found that people in more densely-populated areas tend to be more “future-oriented,” which leads to all sorts of behavioral and attitudinal differences:

Environmental factors – like community size and density – not surprisingly affect the strategies organisms (like, say, people) adopt … for every other aspect of dealing with their interactions with others. This includes fundamental questions about how to structure those dealings – centralized or decentralized, coercion by law or through social ostracism – and issues that flow from these such as taxes versus charity…, attitudes toward crime and terrorism, receptivity to immigration and trade, regulation of business activities or firearms, in short virtually everything.… Which may mean that, if we are to remain United States, and celebrate many more holidays of shared nationhood and shared values together, we will need to learn better to accept that the other side may be coming from a different place on major issues not because these other Americans are evil or irrational, but simply, well, coming from a different place.

And that brings me to my piece this week in US News: A Better Future for Democrats: We need to start recognizing both the challenges and the opportunities that an increasingly centripetal world poses to modern ideologies. “The left needs to reconceptualize what ‘government’ – or, more specifically, liberalism – might look like in a post-industrial, post-mass-produced world. The ability to individually customize mass-produced items is the hallmark of the New Economy.”

The challenge for progressivism and liberalism today is not how it can compete with the revival of anti-liberal ideologies of the 1930s with a similarly retro agenda from the ’30s – it is how to further progressive aims like meaningful opportunity, economic security and constraint of the powerful in a world where the traditional enforcement mechanisms of collective action to achieve these aims are increasingly undermined by emerging technologies.

The same technologies that give rise to the challenges also offer solutions. I’ll be discussing possible solutions – and the initiatives I’m launching – in future updates over the next month.


Hopi & Change

Growing up in Arizona, I was fascinated with Native cultures, particularly those of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. Arizona afforded ample opportunity to experience how these peoples had lived a thousand years earlier, in such ruins as Casa Grande south of Phoenix (conveniently located near the San Francisco Giants’ practice facility) and particularly Montezuma’s Castle near Sedona, a largely still-intact multi-story, mud-walled apartment complex dramatically set in the massive hollow of a red-rock cliff wall.

Most fascinating of all to me were the Hopi, who still live largely in the same villages they have populated since even before the prehistoric peoples who built Phoenix’s extensive canal system disappeared into the mists of history. Old Oraibi on Second Mesa, one of three huge, table-like formations rising from the desert floor in Hopi territory, is the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in North America.

The Hopi learned to coax agriculture from a land without water, building an elaborate cosmology based on harmony and balance with the universe and mediated by spirits represented by the famed and colorful katsinas (or “kachinas”) that appear at their frequent ceremonials. They lived a communal existence and disdained the warlike ways of others around them, especially those that began to move into the Southwest several centuries ago in response to the aggressive westward spread of the strange European civilizations that had planted themselves on the continent’s East Coast. A well-known film, with score by the modern composer Phillip Glass, juxtaposes our modern life with that of the Hopi, appropriately under the title Koyaanisqatsi – a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.”

I spent my childhood summers in northern Arizona learning to ride a horse, fire a rifle, and shoot a bow-and-arrow (two out of three of which I still do with some degree of proficiency). I also met White Bear, a Hopi artist and repository of Hopi esoteric wisdom (he was the main informant for the best-seller, Book of the Hopi), who taught me Hopi history and epistemology.

I spent a sweltering summer night camping on a desolate hillside outside Oraibi so I could rise before dawn to be among the few non-Hopi to watch the sunrise ceremonial celebrating the departure of the katsina spirits for their winter home near the Grand Canyon. Even today I keep several Hopi katsinas displayed on a special shelf in my home. I love the iconography, the colors, the timelessness rooted in the natural world of a special, ancient place. Somehow, I’ve always felt a special connection with the Hopi.

So I was thrilled when my consulting firm, Public Works, was selected to assist the Hopi Tribe in a long-term project to assess and strengthen its school system. I returned there last week for the first time in decades, to kick off the project. A big part of the assignment is helping the Hopi to find the right balance between preparing students to succeed in the challenges of a 21st Century world while at the same time preserving the distinctive Hopi values, culture, religion and even language in the face of the very same challenges. This, of course, is in many ways the same problem facing rural communities across America, although the issue is particularly acute for distinct peoples like the Hopi.

The Hopi live in roughly a dozen widely-scattered, centuries-old villages, most with their own local school and all strongly protective of their local prerogatives, local customs, even individual dialects. At the same time, they have an open enrollment system whereby students can attend the school of their choice – some traveling 90 minutes each way to attend the school their families deem best. In fact, in many ways, the Hopi schools are models of the kinds of education “reforms” we’ve studied around the country – a lithe central administration; building-based control, budgeting, and educational programming; a recognition that good principals create good learning communities that attract the best teachers and committed parents; and empowered parents who “vote with their feet” as to the school’s performance.

Of course, there’s a role even here for system-wide functions. Up in Hopi, this starts with coordinating the vast transportation network for the schools. But our tasks, as in all such performance reviews, include identifying where else efficiencies can be realized through economies of scale or coordination, or whether the community’s values can best be realized through delegation and empowerment – and, as with all things Hopi, how best to find the natural balance.

As always, I welcome your comments below.