Fresh take on public discourse
-July 3rd, 2014
Being a longtime observer of the local political scene, particularly as it relates to making the Inland Northwest a business-friendly place that also offers a high quality of life, I find it easy to get discouraged by the endless jurisdictional turf battles, pointless partisan sparring, and lack of a shared vision over how to achieve what should be common goals.
That divisiveness seems sometimes to permeate every facet of public policy and government spending, from environmental protection, waste management, and land use, to street maintenance and providing high-quality education. And the tone of it often seems more shrill than one would expect to hear in the course of normal political wrangling.
When cynicism starts creeping in, though, it always helps to get the feedback of someone who can look at things from a fresh, larger-scale perspective—someone like Rich Harwood.
Harwood is founder and president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a national nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md. The institute teaches and coaches people and organizations to solve pressing problems and to change how communities work together.
He visited Spokane for a couple of days last month, speaking at a United Way gathering and meeting with several groups of political and civic leaders, and told me in an interview later that he was impressed with the community vibe, comparing it favorably with many others he’s visited.
“For a lot of folks, things are going well,” and community leaders appear to be dealing head-on with tough issues, such as poverty, homelessness, public safety, and providing early learning opportunities for children, he said.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., a city that Spokane sometimes is grouped with for comparative purposes and where Harwood also had spent some time recently trying to help improve public discourse, he said the issues the community was dealing with were similar, but the political environment was toxic.
In Spokane, he says, “I didn’t hear any kind of tension between the business community and the rest of the community” that he heard there, and he says he generally noticed “a much more collaborative spirit” among business and civic leaders here.
Harwood was visiting Spokane on what he has dubbed his cross-country “Reclaiming Main Street” campaign to address the “corrosive” effects the current political environment is having on our ability to make progress in the country. A recent article in the Colorado Springs Business Journal called Harwood “the nation’s leading crusader for community action.” As part of his tour, Rich is recruiting a 100,000-person Public Innovators Corps and collecting people’s aspirations for their communities in an online forum called Townhall.
Though his comments about the Spokane area were mostly favorable, he says the community here faces the same challenges as other communities to address chronic concerns and to keep political acrimony at bay during these still-challenging economic times. A productive path, he says, includes building on shared aspirations to achieve solid goals through hard work and fostering a can-do community “narrative.”
“In Spokane,” he says, despite some favorable impressions, “I’m not sure what the narrative is.”
Perhaps that’s something local leaders will be pondering in the wake of Harwood’s visit here.