Model D speaker series recapped: Making government work

"Government is simply the name we give for the things we choose to do together," said Representative Barney Frank. On a rainy Monday night in Midtown, over 100 people came out for a two-part program about better government in Detroit.

Sexy? Not really. But important? Most definitely. Especially with Election Day just a week away. (Yes, today.)

The first part was straight-up voter ed: Vince Keenan of Publius, Dale Thomson of U-M-Dearborn’s Institute for Local Government, and John Bebow of the Michigan Truth Squad walked the crowded room through several proposals Detroiters will see on their Nov. 6 ballots. Pros and cons were shown by way of TV commercials for each side, with a healthy dose of fact-checking for good measure.

For the second half, we turned our attentions to a broader conversation about civic engagement and leadership, and the responsibilities of both citizens and leaders to move Detroit forward. Jewel Gopwani and Nancy Kaffer from the Detroit Free Press got the conversation going with the question: "How do we encourage more people to engage with government and make their voices heard?"

Bradford Frost of Declare Detroit, a constituency of over 15,000 people who endorsed the Declaration’s 12 principles for prosperity, pointed to new media and technology as an opportunity for citizens to be connected with their representatives like never before.

"Your ability to be engaged in the city is really elevated," said Frost. "If you have a yearning to be a part of the process, plug in."

This, of course, begs the question: How do citizens know their concerns matter? "A fierce focus on the fundamentals would go a long way in restoring confidence in city government," Frost said.

Former City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel shared her frustration with the tone of civic discourse and encouraged more participation and balance. "We have to change the conversation so that ALL the voices, not just the loudest, are heard."

The panel included Keenan, Frost, Cockrel, Sarida Scott of CDAD, Dione Rocha of Rebuilding Civil Society, and Marja Winters of the City of Detroit, Department of Planning & Development.

When asked if there were current examples of diverse constituencies working together toward common goals, Winters pointed to the food justice movement. She also acknowledged that with limited resources, we as a city need to identify priorities and carefully consider opportunities for public-private partnerships -- with proper accountability.

Meanwhile, an online conversation hosted by the Urban Innovation Exchange called for innovative ideas and best practices for improved municipal function. Local examples included Code for America’s Text My Bus app to share transit times with riders, and LOVELAND Technologies' "Why Don’t We Own This?" website to help visualize the Wayne County Property Auction.

Story Bellows from Mayor Nutter's Office in Philadelphia chimed in to share the New Urban Mechanics program now adopted by both Boston and Philly. Known as the office of "yes," Bellows described it as a new model for "leveraging urban activists and connecting them to city government without the bureaucracy."

Could something like this work in Detroit?

In the meantime, Keenan reminded the audience that sometimes innovation begins with old-fashioned civic engagement -- unsexy stuff like voting and attending public forums. He also posited that Council by Districts offers Detroiters a "once in a century" opportunity for neighborhood representation and structural change.

Jeff Aronoff closed the program with an invitation to visit D:hive, where residents can learn not just where to live, work and play, but to engage meaningfully in civic life by volunteering and leading in their neighborhoods.

This Speaker Series was a special collaboration between Model D, UIX and partners. Thanks to the University of Michigan Detroit Center for hosting. For the Detroit Free Press endorsements, click here.
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