After an hour, by which time positions are pretty well staked out, the facilitator brings a chair into the room. This chair, she announces, is the "common good" chair, and the task for the disputants is, by turns, to sit in it and describe the issue on the floor from the perspective of the common good.
Do you imagine that you would say from that chair only what you said when arguing your position initially? Or would you feel some obligation to:
* Show that you understand other positions in the room?
* Notice reasons behind those positions more clearly than you had before?
* See why others might be less enthusiastic about your position than you are?
* Perhaps concede that the others in the argument, like you, have a stake in the outcome both as individuals and as Palo Altans?
After everyone had taken his or her turn in the "common good" chair, how might the rest of the meeting go?
This exercise will have generated a lot more information in the room — and even more in the heads of the participants. Those holding different points of view may look more thoughtful, more like someone you could have a cup of coffee with.
You might feel that beating them in an argument is less appealing than finding a solution compatible with or at least sensitive to some of the other perspectives.
In this imagined situation, several qualities of the common good are sitting between the lines <02014> that it's something we create together; that all the effects of a decision have standing, not only those you seek; that it's a frame of mind attuned to searching rather than one fixed on a solution; and that accountability for a decision is an implicit pledge by each contributor to it.
After settling each issue, the next issue brings the common good to life once more in the search for a resolution that will again serve the community's needs, rather than those of a few.
When a proposal entitled "Civic Engagement for the Common Good" came before the Palo Alto City Council at its priority-setting retreat Jan. 12, those of us advocating it didn't do a good enough job articulating the "common good" part of the title. The council decided that "civic engagement" was important enough to carry the full freight, and that's what was adopted. We are very pleased by the council's recognition of the importance of civic engagement, yet we believe that the "common good" has much more to it than what came out at the meeting.
The "common good" is a substantive matter. It has a fine pedigree and is a key component of the democratic process. As in the hypothetical scene above, the common good can be an exercise in detaching a personal perspective for a moment and asking the question, "Where is the community in my argument and how is it being built?"
Decisions then are shaped to serve the community as a whole, not just the aims of a segment.
Civic engagement, when driven by an explicit interest in serving the common good, can reveal what we share as a community in Palo Alto. In its most basic form, it affirms that people are the solution, not the problem, in policy-making.
It becomes a civic instrument delivering results greater than the sum of individual participants' positions. As the council's priority on civic engagement takes shape, we believe that a linked focus on the common good is essential. Together they can become a defining characteristic of our community.