The what and how of civic conversations
Sometimes we need to separate the question,” What should we do?” from the question, “How should we do it?” “What should we do about our public schools?” for example, is quite different from the question “How should we improve our schools?” Or is it? If we cannot imagine a way to improve our schools, then maybe it is a waste of time to think about whether or not we should improve them.
The worst case, of course, would be that of knowing how to change things, but not knowing what to change. If we do not have some vision of good pubic schools— what schools should provide in our society—then knowing how to change schools would be someplace between useless and dangerous. This seems to be the case of many people who come from business to public service. They claim they know how to change things, but they have little idea of how the public or civic realm differs from the commercial.
Public schools, after all, should be places where students learn to be good citizens and how to participate in democratic practices. (They have other goals as well, but none as important as this for the future of our democracy.) If we agree on that, (the what question) and we look at how schools fail to do this today, we can review different ways to move our schools in that direction (the how question).
In terms of the how question, three different strategies for changing systems are: persuasion, incentives, and regulation. This triad is a re-working of Kenneth Boulding’s three system organizers: integration, exchange, and threat. In most cases, we need to use all three and in the right proportion. You can find examples for using this triad in Civilizing the Economy.
It does seem correct to say that if you don’t know where to go, it doesn’t help to know how to get there. On the other hand, if you have a goal, then there are probably a variety of ways to achieve it. Citizens can find the right balance of these three such strategies, persuasion, incentives, and regulations, through civic deliberation.