Newly-elected Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson was recently named to the Baltimore Business Journal‘s Power 20. This week they asked me, as a friend of Bill’s and member of a previous Power 20 cohort, to comment on Bill’s relationship with and use of power.
“Bill is a curious, humble, and earnest young man, and he represents a true shift in how power is conferred in this town,” I said. “He didn’t work his way up through the ranks and spend a few years as a city council person, or wait his turn. Bill was able to win because of a shift in political power that’s taking place right now. He derives his power from the people, not from the system.”
Political power is now being conferred through the accumulation of weak and strong ties with citizens, and no longer by top-down power structures, power-brokers, and kingmakers. Don’t get me wrong; those folks still have an impact (they did in Bill Ferguson’s race – they got behind him when it was clear he was onto something), but that impact is waning. And things that were previously unthinkable are now possible.
It may seem like hyperbole to compare the situation in Baltimore to what took place over the last three weeks in Egypt. But it’s an apt comparison.
For decades in both places, people have felt marginalized by a top-down, tone-deaf government that was more interested in its own well-being than that of its citizens. In both places, decades of neglect and mismanagement have led to a serious crisis of confidence.
People are fed up. They’re tired of feeling marginalized, the failed programs, the broken promises, the lack of accountability and the inability to implement imaginative solutions. For 60 years, Baltimore’s population has been in decline, and places in decline have not had the benefit of oversight, dollars, or creative leaders. Instead, corruption (explicit or implicit) festers.
The Perfect Storm
Several factors are emerging all at once:
- Young people want to live near their work and are tired of commuting (and they’ll accept a pay cut to do it)
- Our roads are full and can no longer be meaningfully expanded due to lack of space and funds
- Fuel costs are projected to rise as China’s demand grows exponentially
- Online networks are having a meaningful impact on real-world relationships and politics
These factors, combined, have made Baltimore the most important jurisdiction in Maryland – practically overnight. Yet our leadership has not caught up with this reality.
Baltimore’s recent rise to relevance combined with the power of communications networks will create stark shifts in the power structure.
Two Kinds of Leaders
Today we have a choice between two kinds of leaders. We can choose between the leaders that the system hands us, or we can choose to put our faith in new, emerging leaders with whom citizens have a legitimate connection and a voice.
|Product of the system||Newcomers, inspired to serve|
|Disproportionate influence of money||Driven by small donations, connection with people|
|Ideas come from insiders and developers||Ideas come from anywhere and from study of best practices globally|
|Power comes from the top-down||Power comes from legitimate engagement with citizens|
|“Openness” is skin deep, only ‘fauxpenness’||Transparency at every level; data is a strategic driver|
|Secrecy and private realities drive decisions||One shared view of reality drives all decisions|
|Treat Symptoms: Problems (poverty, crime) are “mitigated”||Address Root Causes: Focus on wealth creation|
|Social media is a “one way,” Orwellian broadcast tool||Social Media is a “two-way” engagement tool|
|Over-Confident that the system knows best||Open to Questioning: People know best|
|Boomer-centric: top-down, command and control||Gen-Y Centered: Collaborative, flat organizations|
|People are engaged to placate them||People are legitimately engaged|
|Fear of reprisal keeps people in line||May the best ideas and people win|
|Career politician||Will serve only as long as effective|
It is sadly telling that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s much-promoted (Orwellian, broadcast-oriented) Safer City social media campaign follows just one person on Twitter: the Mayor herself. And it has just 78 followers. Why? Because it’s all for show, and no one legitimately cares about a program to mitigate a problem – people actually want to solve it at the root. To hell with a Safer City: give me a city where everyone can earn a living, and I can bet you it’ll be safer.
But our politicians don’t know that, because they have not taken the time to benchmark ourselves against other cities or learn from best practices elsewhere. Baltimore has more cops per capita than any other city. Why is that?
Because we need them. Why do we need them? Because we have a lot of crime. Why do we have a lot of crime? Because we have no middle class. Why do we have no middle class? Because we have not seriously focused on enabling small business formation, which is the number one driver of jobs. Instead we have given tax handouts to fatcat developers so they can build big projects and enrich their cronies.
Yes, clearly the cure is more cops. As the Mayor told the Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton, “Maybe we could do without as many officers, but that’s not what the public wants. They want more patrolmen on the street. They want more police in the neighborhood.”
No, Madam Mayor. What the public really wants is for these root cause issues to be addressed. It takes true leadership and understanding to go beyond just treating the symptoms.
Some have called the recent events in Egypt “the Twitter and Facebook revolution.” A few have scoffed at the idea that these tools could spark a revolution and cite eons of revolutionary precedent as proof. But it’s a mistake to dismiss their role.
Online networks are accelerants. They create connections passively where none might otherwise exist. Critical mass for change comes when the density of connections between people reaches a threshold level. Ideas spread between networks instantly. What might have taken 10 years before now takes 1 year.
The Soviet regime could never have survived in the age of networks. Iraq would have collapsed under its own weight if given time and these tools.
And the same repressive structures will fall in Baltimore, for the same reasons.
To quote Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”