Teresa L. Córdova
When we are on the ground getting the policies implemented, or perhaps even making the policies, we focus on doing what we can get done. One of our first questions is, “what are the constraints, the limits of what is possible (or probable), given current fiscal conditions, regulatory structures, or political dynamics.” In focusing on getting done what is more likely in our power to influence, we might also make the decision to leave the more difficult – or nearly unattainable – goals behind. Working under conditions of limited government resources, our focus might be to accept the constraints of the “changing times” and focus our efforts on budgets, minimizing as much as we can, cuts to vital services. We might implement strategies for “efficiency,” introduce new technologies, or shift organizational structures. We work with what we got; we adapt; we innovate. As politician, as manager, as innovator, as activist, we act with the best of intentions. It makes sense; it is a way for good-minded people to be engaged, to contribute.
Does it also make sense to evaluate our choices to engage in these ways? Does it make sense to ask about the implications of given actions as to whether they contribute to solutions or unintentionally exacerbate the problems? How might our choices with respect to local governance, for example, strengthen or weaken our mechanisms to govern ourselves in ways that promote the collective good? Because if we look closer, we can make the connection between the conditions that exist at the level of local governance (i.e. insufficient revenue and decreasing ability to deliver) as part and parcel of the same set of dynamics that are creating disparities that threaten the foundational fabric of our communities.
Though we may be at the ground level attempting to sustain both the public sector and its value to local governance, we might remember that the cuts to public sector budgets didn’t just happen. There are economic interests that with their power have directed wealth to themselves through tax and regulatory policies – thus depleting the revenue base of the public while adding to its costs. The concentrated wealth does not however, make its way to job creation and shared benefits. Instead, anti-government rhetoric makes government itself the scapegoat and further erodes the public’s belief that government should be valued. All of this makes way, for the further privatization of government functions and policies that serve, not the public interest necessarily, but the drive for generating profit through the administration of those functions, e.g. prison industrial complex in the U.S.
Under conditions of our stewardship with its limited power, how might we sharpen our abilities to get at the root cause for the conditions we face, perhaps change, but at least not make worse? We might ask, does our approach to democracy and local governance strengthen the collective good or take us to the door of furthering the demise of the public sector, or more to the point – the public’s commitment to itself. Hopefully, the desire to salvage from what is possible does not deliver us deeper into the entrenched logic of furthering the concentration and centralization of power, decision-making and wealth. The choices that we make in how to address conditions of reduced revenue streams, new technology and pressures for privatization will either reinforce the very forces that create those conditions – or challenge them. We need to pay attention to our policy choices, their logical extension and their implications. Articulating values of the collective good, making way for multiple stakeholders, working in coalitions and partnering with citizen organizations are among the strategies that we can employ to re-create – and strengthen the public, for the public.
Teresa L. Córdova, Ph.D. is Professor in Urban Planning and Director of The Great Cities Institute, representing UIC’s Great Cities Initiative and commitment to its Urban Mission. Professor Córdova is an applied theorist and political economist whose focus is community development and Latino Studies. She approaches her work as a scholarship of engagement in which her research, pedagogy and service are integrated. She studies the impacts of globalization on Latino communities with particular interest in global/local dynamics. Throughout the span of her academic career, Professor Córdova has engaged with communities outside the university and is an expert in community/university partnerships.