Governance Education: Helping City Councils Learn

By Vogelsang-Coombs, Vera | Public Administration Review, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Governance Education: Helping City Councils Learn


Vogelsang-Coombs, Vera, Public Administration Review


Breakdowns in group processes cause most governing bodies to act at a "distressingly small fraction" of their leadership potential (Carver, 1990, xviii). This article focuses on how city councils can learn to manage their group decision making, expand their leadership potential, and exercise their authority to govern more competently.

City councils are institutional actors in the democratic political system. They govern cities by making policy. Policies are their authoritative (group) decisions. Councils have the authority to give or withhold action necessary to address a perceived problem (Banfield, 1961). To make policy, council members test trends, chart new directions, provide a positive vision of the future, and inspire people to produce useful organizational adaptations (Kotter, 1990). In their policy decisions, city councils allocate values, specifying what their city stands for, what outcomes flow from their collective actions, and how accountability is ensured (Easton, 1965; Carver, 1990). Councils asserting their authority help cities respond in a timely way to changes in the environment. Through their institutional agenda, councils "mobilize bias," defining some policy issues as more important than others (Schattschnelder, 1960, 71-72). Through their police power, local governments can coerce people to comply with their decisions. Councils also assert their authority to "correct" the problems that constituents have with administrative actions that operationalize their policies (Svara, 1990). The democratic political system, unfortunately, traps city councils in this policy-making process without a mechanism for socializing their members to participate in governance coalitions.(1)

Leaders participate in coalitions only if they have been (1) taught to believe it matters, (2) taught the relevant skills, (3) indoctrinated with aspirations that stimulate power-sharing in the making of authoritative decisions, and (4) taught to see themselves as members of the political community (Lindblom, 1980, 99; Lasswell, 1967).

In practice, democratic leaders have shown "debilitating fears" that predispose them to avoid playing their authority roles (Lasswell, 1967, 96). These predispositions constrain decision makers from freely and fully evaluating their policy options. The consequence is that councils neglect their obligations as governing bodies because they avoid making policy decisions. This decision-making inertia of city councils is a significant public problem (Dewey, 1954, 208; Lasswell, 1967; Carver, 1990).

This article presents governance education as a way to help the 39,000 city councils operating in the democratic political system to govern better. As an education in support of democracy, governance education is, first of all, pragmatic (Dewey, 1916; 1954). It connects what city councils learn with what they do as governing bodies. Its curriculum addresses the things that are controversial, "quotidian," and "socially most fundamental" (Dewey 1954, 180; 1916, 191). Second, in a safe format for face-to-face discourse, governance education provides on-the-job learning. Council officials use situations drawn from their political context as their educational subjects. Through an experiential method, city councils learn to reinterpret the meaning of actual events and their most troubling political controversies (Dewey, 1963). Councils use their new knowledge to stimulate their decision making.

Governance education is a special case of adult education. City councils are aggregations of adult learners. Adult learners expect education to help them solve practical problems, using an instructional methodology tailored to fit their life experiences (Dewey, 1966; Lewin, 1951; Knowles, 1990). To help city councils overcome their decision-making paralysis, governance education employs "double-loop learning" (Argyris and Schon, 1974). This learning dynamic enables city councils to craft action strategies after developing a group environment that supports the forming of policy coalitions. …

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