To Solve Our Sustainability Challenges, We Need an Evolution of Governance

October 22, 2015


The year was 1789 and the newly formed United States of America had just completed its first presidential election. The “Spirit of ‘76” describes a time of hope and change when radical ideas, such as the notion that a people have the right to choose their own leaders, finally came to fruition.

Randall Solomon, Sustainable Jersey
Randall Solomon, Sustainable Jersey

Although it wasn’t until 74 years later that Lincoln coined the famous phrase, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” As often happens in such times, the excitement of achieving high ideals had to be quickly tempered to address practical realities.

How to conduct the election? Nobody had done this before. Thirteen states, each with their own voting rules, demographics, and differing resources, were charged with figuring out the details of conducting the election. Once the states concluded their processes, each had to report out how they voted. To complete the process, electors had to physically travel by horse from each of the colonies to the Capitol to report on how they voted. And thus the Electoral College was born.

Fast forward to today and times have changed. We have electronic voting machines, 24-hour news coverage, sophisticated analytics to target voter outreach and messaging, and real-time exit polls. But in the year 2000 Al Gore got more votes than George Bush, but lost the presidential election because of the antiquated rules of the Electoral College which was designed to facilitate people riding horses across the country to report election results.

Our System of Governance Needs an Upgrade

This is not an isolated quirk; it’s representative of a significant problem that pervades government at all levels. The United States is the second oldest country after the United Kingdom, We may be considered a young culture, or a young people – the French had customs and language we identify as French long before the United States of America existed – but in terms of having a functional national government with seminal documents and structure, the United States is very old.

Other countries have tinkered and tossed out, and reformed government along the way. From constitutional interpretations that dictate how we finance public elections, to antiquated rules for how we allow citizens to engage in public decision (wait in line and get your two minutes to talk), to ineffective systems for communicating critical information, our system of governance is in dire need of an upgrade. 

The Connection between Sustainability, Democracy, and Governance

How does this relate to Sustainable Jersey? The classic definition of sustainability suggests that our future depends on supporting and managing three interdependent domains: environment, economy, and society. Among these society often gets overlooked. But in fact it may be the most important of the three as it determines not just our quality of life, but our capacity to act together to solve our problems. Every other sustainability issue that we want to solve is, in some way, dependent on our system of governance. If governance is ineffective, our attempts to solve sustainability issues will also be ineffective.

The connection between sustainability, democracy, and governance goes back to the very founding of the concept. In a nutshell, sustainability requires us to make rapid change on a number of fronts. Making real change requires that people in a society see a common future together, and have the tools and information needed to act together to fix common problems. This includes having a shared frame of reference (the same information, similar mental models for interpreting that information) so that we see problems similarly. Then we need the ability to share opinions and reach agreement on those problems, identify and vet solutions, and coordinate to implement them. These are the basic elements for any democracy, any people, to prosper

To Solve Our Sustainability Problems We Need an Evolution of Governance

Sustainability in particular presents unique challenges that require brand new capacity beyond these basics. Sustainability issues are difficult because they are long-term, complex, and not casually observable. In short, they are out of sight and out of mind; either off in the future (like climate change), away in space (like waste shipped away to another state), or not visible without technological and expert analysis (like air pollution). The result is that, unlike the pothole that grates on us every day, or the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, sustainability issues are easy to set aside. How do we evolve our system of governance so that we can see problems that aren’t visible, spend money today to address problems that will manifest in the future? How can we get leaders to think beyond short term election cycles and quarterly reports?

To have a system that is commensurate to solving our sustainability problems we need nothing less than an evolution of governance.


Government Connext Forum Explored the Connection between Sustainability, Democracy, and Governance

In our recent Government ConNext Forum, Sustainable Jersey explored the connection between sustainability, democracy, and governance, and specifically what this means at the local level in New Jersey. There are scores of ways that municipalities can, and should, upgrade how they operate to provide better public information, better public services, and engage citizens in public decision making and problem solving. Through our rules and procedures, are we making it easier or harder for citizens to engage with government and with public life?

In the medium sized town where I live, I’m a local volunteer, serve on the green team, and am friends with many of the staff and elected officials. Nice people. However, many of my interactions with government are highly frustrating. For starters, I like to play recreational volleyball. And my town has a rec league…that I can’t sign up for. To sign up I have to appear at town hall during regular business hours. Since I work full-time that just hasn’t been possible. Literally, the league started a month ago and I haven’t had time to sign up. I estimate that I’m .01% fatter and less healthy as a result of this.

Despite the overwhelming ability to communicate with our friends (and corporations and causes marketing to us) through Vine, Snapchat, YouTube, message boards, Facebook, text, Twitter, even local access cable TV…at the local Planning Board meeting regular citizens have to sit, sometimes for hours, waiting for the opportunity to speak for no more than 2 minutes. If you work nights, if you aren’t mobile, if you have kids, if you are tired at night, you can’t have a voice in the proceedings.

Of course going to the Planning Board meeting assumes you know about it. The meeting agendas are, by law, published. But good luck finding it on my town’s website. And even if you are able to find it, you might not know which meeting to go to. The agenda will often say simply “call to order, old business, new business, public comment.” It won’t say “Consideration of approval for massive new development on Main Street that will change the town forever.”

On the positive side (I think), the new school superintendent just left me a robo-voicemail asking me to follow the schools’ Instagram account.

Multiply these examples by a thousand other small ways we are unintentionally and intentionally discouraged from participating in public life. It’s clear that local government has a lot of room for improvement. But change requires time and money. Given the levels of stress being felt by local governments, it’s going to be a long slog for towns to make changes. As a very first step, they need to better understand what they do and don’t know with regard to good governance, what is possible, and the information needs of a sustainable community.

To begin this important work, in 2014 Sustainable Jersey convened a Public Information and Engagement Taskforce. After nearly two years of research and vetting, we are proud to be releasing eight new actions for towns:

  • Communications

o   Municipal Communications Strategy

o   Emergency Communications Planning (coming in November)

o   Vulnerable Populations Identification for Emergencies (coming in November)

  • Citizen Engagement

o   Improve Public Engagement in Municipal Government

o   Improve Public Engagement in Planning and Zoning

o   Online Municipal Public Service Systems

  • Access to Public Information

o   Digitizing Public Information

o   Open Data Inventory and Management (coming in November)

These new actions build on the pioneering and innovative work taking place in New Jersey municipalities and beyond, while raising the bar on the why, what and how to build and support robust community and civic engagement in communities. The action toolkits provide detailed guidance and resources to help municipal officials, green team members and other representatives to implement these new best practice recommendations in order to begin the- evolution of governance needed to solve our sustainability challenges.

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