One of the most fascinating byproducts of the internet age is the explosion of creativity it has inspired in ordinary people. Take, for example, the success of Wikipedia, the popular web-based encyclopedia. Wikipedia is built on openly editable content, which means that virtually anyone with internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles. Contributors are largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. Now, can you trust a bunch of chaotic hackers to do as good a job as Encyclopedia Britannica? Well, according to a Nature magazine study in 2005 that compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica, you can. Not only did they find Wikipedia more reliable, errors and vandalism were corrected in mere minutes. The average time to fix an error in that version of the Encyclopedia Britannica in your library is, well, never. It’s already set in print. Wikipedia is a reminder that given encouragement and opportunity, ordinary people will achieve extraordinary things. This lesson applies as much to community building as it does to website development.
In the current political environment, it has become common, even fashionable, to dismiss the judgment of voters—ordinary people—as fickle and shortsighted. Elected officials, policymakers, and large stakeholders often forget to fully engage community leaders and intended beneficiaries in their development efforts. The top-down approach, almost without fail, results in the collapse of the relevant project. In an article entitled Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever), Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz detail how an ambitious 2010 plan to reform failing public schools in Newark, New Jersey, grounded to a halt because local educators and parents felt shut out of the conversation. It did not matter that the plan had the support of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (who donated $100 million toward the effort) or popular politicians Cory Booker and Chris Christie. Residents of a community are the most important factors in the failure or success of every new program or service because they have the most to lose. You ignore their legitimate concerns at your own peril.
But like Wikipedia illustrates, community engagement is also essential because of the unplanned efficiencies—knowledge and experience unavailable to the initial planners—that often emerge from within the community. Unlike the do-gooders who converge on the community only to pitch their new foolproof initiatives, residents have lived here and have been witnesses to the rise and fall of each successive project over the years. They, more than anyone else, know the strengths and weaknesses of the community. Think of how much excess capacity lingers in a community where the locals have been shunned by policymakers, from unused ideas to misallocated savings. Community engagement harnesses this potential and channels it in the single-minded pursuit of excellence. It empowers residents to help themselves.
It should come as no surprise then that my favorite category of the COE Framework is Category Three: Residents and Other Customers. The beauty of the Framework is that it is not prescriptive. Instead, the questions are yardsticks by which each community can measure its progress toward shared goals. Category Three calls on leaders and policymakers to reaffirm their commitment to involving a cross-section of the community in the planning, execution, and assessment of collective impact initiatives. The work of building vibrant and strong communities is one that requires all hands on deck because, as an old African proverb tells us, “if you go alone, you’ll go fast, but if you go together, you’ll go far.”
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