Barking Dogs and the Potluck Model of Government

A city in California is working to move beyond the customer-service approach to government and engage citizens as problem-solvers.
by , | December 6, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Call it the barking-dog test for good government: When your neighbor's dog's incessant barking is annoying the daylights out of you, whom do you call? If you answered, "The city's animal-control department, of course," Ted Gaebler has some ideas that might make you want to take another look at that question.

For the last 30 years, the customer-service model has shaped thinking on citizen engagement with government. But Gaebler, the city manager of Rancho Cordova, Calif. (and co-author with David Osborne of the influential 1993 book "Reinventing Government"), says he and his team have changed their thinking on citizen engagement. Now, he says, they are looking beyond the relationship between the city and its residents and focusing on the broader idea of civic engagement.

After all, says Gaebler, a city cannot be all things to all people. Citizens need to come together and take some responsibility to work with each other. A primary focus of this new model of civic engagement is on strengthening relationships not just between residents and the city but also among the residents themselves.

When he and his staff started to work on this new approach, Gaebler says, there was some suspicion and even anger on the part of citizens. They thought the city was trying to shirk its responsibilities for delivering services. A real turning point came at a community meeting that happened to be a potluck dinner: Residents began to understand that what the city was trying to do was to move from a vending-machine model of government to a potluck model: Instead of simply putting money in and getting services out, everybody contributes something to the meal, one that is better not only because it costs less but also because each is bringing something to the table that he or she is really good at.

Of course, a sense of community is essential to the kind of civic engagement suggested by a potluck model of government, and any time you're talking about community you're talking about strong neighborhoods. But there is no line item in a city budget for making neighborhoods great places to live. So the city engaged the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University to collaborate in creating a program called "Growing Strong Neighborhoods."

In the past, a great neighborhood was one in which all of us knew each other. That social connectivity has been diminishing over time, and programs like "Growing Strong Neighborhoods" and, a private social network for neighborhoods that Rancho Cordova also is using, are aimed at rebuilding and fostering that connectivity. As residents get to know each other, the thinking goes, they become more invested in the neighborhood and they want to be there for the long haul.

To Gaebler and his team in Rancho Cordova, one of the most important roles of city government is that of creating a sense of trust among neighbors. Community problems arise when neighborhood problems escalate to the city-government level rather than citizens talking with each other and working out among themselves issues such as high weeds around a house or a lack of positive activities for neighborhood teenagers--or what to do about a barking dog.