Blog: Ric Geyer

In the winter of its economic downturn, the city of Detroit is doing an upriver crawl. Jump in with Ric Geyer, managing partner of 4731 Consulting (and long-distance swimmer), as he discusses Citizens for Cities, heroism, and his annual 14-miler across Lake St. Clair.

Post 3: Open Source Governance

I believe that if we as a city, state, or nation are to remain relevant, we need to tap the power of ALL of our citizens.  It is not enough to rely on the "top down" approach to governing citizens or to solving our social issues.  The real answers – the sustainable solutions – will come from the people themselves – from you and I.  And that is why I believe "Bottom up is the next big thing".  

Elinor Ostrom is a professor of political science from Indiana University.  Recently, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics – for what she calls "Advanced Economic Theory".  Per a CNN report that came out after she won,

"Ostrom's work shows that local communities often manage common resources -- such as woods, lakes and fish stocks -- better on their own than when outside authorities impose rules, the committee said. "Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do," she said to explain the significance of her work."

She is focused specifically on conflict resolution surrounding "common pool resource problems", but I believe this "bottom up" concept is applicable in a broader sense as well.  

From a governance perspective, I believe this notion best embodies itself in something called "Open Source Governance".   We all know what "open source" means relative to software.  And "open source", when applied to innovation, has been around for some time, and Mike Finney at Ann Arbor Spark has been practicing "Open Source Economic Development" to our mutual benefit for some time, but I am suggesting something a little different.

This concept was originally developed as an organizational model for implementing a green strategy for the City of Detroit.  It was based on the theory that there were already capable, successful efforts within the city that are dedicated to achieving the same goals that would be embraced by a green effort within the city administration.

If power-sharing could be achieved, that transferred responsibility (and the accountability) for achieving our common goals to the community, theoretically the cities' goals could be achieved by the community, which would be beneficial to both groups.  The key to this arrangement is to get active community-identified members who will represent the interests of the entire community.

The role of the city then is to simply facilitate success.  In this case, the city would identify one individual whose primary task would be to remove the barriers in the administration that would inhibit success for these groups.   We can liken this to the thumb hole in an artists' palette.  This position would provide credibility for the group, but it would also provide a link back to the city – and would be responsible for meeting the needs, removing the barriers, and providing communication for the group.  It has recently been suggested to me that isn't as groundbreaking as I would have hoped, and that, for instance, you will see exactly this sort of thing in the current city administration, perhaps called by a different name. 
In this example, suppose we take Greening of Detroit.  They are focused on increasing the acreage of gardens and farmable land in the city.  Their success rests in part on their ability to achieve that goal.   Forgetting for a moment that it is against the law in Detroit to have a parcel whose primary use is farming (a temporary aberration being addressed at this time), if the Mayor's representative succeeds in helping Greening achieve their goal, then the city has achieved a very valuable goal as well and can do it without its own initiatives, bureaucracy, or resources.  And, as an added benefit, citizens feel an immediate sense of empowerment, belonging, and success.

It is our belief that this model can be expanded to included other "non-essential" service areas.  Energy, urban farming, arts and culture – many areas could lend themselves to this approach.  What if the Engineering Society of Detroit (or the US Green Building Council or the Institute of Architects) were to take on the responsibility of representing the green building community with the Mayor's office?  They clearly are committed to pursuing Green Building Technology and would be highly motivated to report back to the Mayor when issues arose that made it difficult for them to reach their goals.  And if they succeed – the city succeeds. 

Overall it seems like an interesting way to generate engagement and facilitate success.  The city saves resources, citizens get more engaged, and common goals become easier to achieve.  What's not to like…