What in the Name of Reform?
By Peter Block
The word “reform” has become ubiquitous in its meaning and uses over the past few years. It is a hot-button topic, and perhaps its meaning has diminished. State of the Re:Union’s contributor Peter Block gives a refresher course on how to reform the notion of “reform.” (Because there are a few poignant points, SOTRU will present an excerpt from his post. To read Peter’s post in its entirety, click here.)
I would like to whisper a quiet caution to those of us who are investing in institutional or structural reform efforts. There is an intensifying stream of efforts to reform our institutions. In the U.S. there is government reform, education reform, healthcare reform, economic reform, food reform and environmental reform efforts. A growth industry to be sure.
Unfortunately, most of these reform efforts will change very little of consequence. Reform means to change the nature or order of things, to end something that is not working and replace it with something that does. Most of our current efforts have little to do with reform. They are at best efforts to make things a little better, a little less expensive, and at worst they are punitive strategies masquerading under the banner of reform.
The meaning of serious reform.
If we were serious about reform, there are four conditions that need to exist:
1. Serious reform means that there is a fundamental shift in the nature of relationships among the players. For example there would be a change in the relationship between teacher and student in education, doctor and patient in health care, politician and citizen in government, farmer and family in the food world.
2. This shift in relationship begins with a shift in who is authorized to speak, whose voice counts. If the voice of the educator, medical professional or elected official drives the reform and the voice of the student, patient or citizen is not amplified, then nothing has really changed.
3. When we re-authorize whose voice counts, there is a shift in where control resides. This means that real transformation calls forth from the student and patient and citizen more power than they had before, whether they want it or not. Power is distributed, not centralized. Consistency and efficiency are sacrificed for local ownership.
4. Shifting control leads to new forms of engagement. The players whom the system is designed to serve (students, patients and citizens) are now the center of the action. We pay close attention to how they come together. They meet to create relationships with one another. They value one another’s speaking. They realize they have the real power to create the future they have in mind for themselves. These effects are determined by the way we come together, not by new policy, program or expert design.
Education reform applies to the other reform movements afoot.
Serious economic reform will create ways to build a stronger relationship among local businesses, home-based entrepreneurs, citizens buying less and buying local.
Serious health care reform will recognize that health is dependent on the network of relationships around us. We now know how to be healthy, we just need support from each other.
Government reform will have all of us deciding that we are citizens producing a good life for ourselves, not consumers wanting more services. Politicians will lose power and redefine their role as super-conveners of the process described above.
What this calls us to remember is that it is in the nature of students, parents, neighbors and citizens to lead the fundamental shifts that we all seek. The essential reform is to break the dependency we have on professionals, experts and consumption to provide satisfaction. As this occurs, our gift to the professionals is to give them and their systems something to follow.
What has reform come to mean to you? Has it been used so often that it has lost its meaning? What do you find to be the definition of reform? We want to know how reform works in your life, so write and tell us about your thoughts and comments.
Peter Block co-authored the book “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.” He is a partner in Designed Learning, a training company that offers workshops to build the skills outlined in his books. He is the author of Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, The Answer to How Is Yes, and Community. He is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the Organization Development Network’s 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award.