The Change We Need: DIY on a Civic Scale

I’ve been working a lot lately to imagine what Government 2.0 might look like. One of the most inspiring and thought-provoking stories I’ve read recently might not look like a Gov 2.0 story, but it is: Island DIY: Kauai residents don’t wait for state to repair road.

Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free.

We’ve gotten used to what Frank DiGiammarino of the National Academy of Public Administration recently called “vending machine government” – the idea that we put in our taxes and fees, and get out services: $28 for a driver’s license, $1 million for a mile of interstate highway, $1 Trillion for a war or a financial rescue.

In fact, governments, like corporations, are vehicles for collective action. We pay a government, or a business, because it’s an efficient way to tackle projects that are larger than a single person or group of friends can take on. But let’s not forget that we ourselves are the raw material of collective action.

Traditional communities still remember how to do a barn raising. Those of us who spend our time on the internet celebrate wikipedia, but most of us have forgotten how to do crowdsourcing in the physical world.

The internet provides new vehicles for collective action. A lot of people pay attention when social media is used to organize a protest (as with the recent twitter-fueled protests in Moldova.) But we need to remember that we can organize to do work, as well as to protest!

Especially striking in the story are the cost and time-savings:

“It would not have been open this summer, and it probably wouldn’t be open next summer,” said Bruce Pleas, a local surfer who helped organize the volunteers. “They said it would probably take two years. And with the way they are cutting funds, we felt like they’d never get the money to fix it.”

And if the repairs weren’t made, some business owners faced the possibility of having to shut down….

So Slack [owner of a kayak tour business in the park], other business owners and residents made the decision not to sit on their hands and wait for state money that many expected would never come. Instead, they pulled together machinery and manpower and hit the ground running March 23.

And after only eight days, all of the repairs were done, Pleas said. It was a shockingly quick fix to a problem that may have taken much longer if they waited for state money to funnel in….

“We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part,” Slack said. “Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.”

Now, I’m not saying that we can crowdsource ourselves out of the financial meltdown, at least not easily. The financial engines of the world are powerful and complex, and were starved of fuel. Maybe we needed some of the big government interventions we’ve seen in the past few months. But let’s not let them blind us to our own capacity to solve the problems before us.

Now is the time for a renewal of our commitment to make our own institutions, our own communities, and our own difference. There’s a kind of passivity even to our activism: we think that all we can do is to protest. Collective action has come to mean collective complaint. Or at most, a collective effort to raise money.

What the rebuilding of the washed out road in Polihale State Park teaches us is that we can do more than that. We can apply the DIY spirit on a civic scale.

Aneesh Chopra, the Secretary for Technology of the Commonwealth of Virginia, recently told me why he liked the term “commonwealth” better than “state”: commonwealth emphasizes the value that we create by coming together. Technology provides us with new ways to coordinate, new ways to govern and to regulate, but we should never forget that these are merely means. The end is a better society. And that starts with us.

We need to rediscover government as an enabler, not a solution provider; as a platform for our own innovation, a lever for our own work, not as the deus ex machina that we’ve paid to do for us what we could be doing for ourselves.

If you know of other great civic DIY stories, let me know. I want to feature technology in my Government 2.0 activism, but I also want to feature the simple DIY spirit.