When a new water main is installed, or an internal software system upgraded there is no ribbon cutting ceremony. It’s out of the public eye and until residents are left without running water or websites crash unable to handle overload, there’s little notice. There are always ceremonies around new buildings or bridges because we like things that are shiny, sexy and new.
In recent reporting here by Jim Striebich on the state of Peekskill’s infrastructure we learned how the city is preparing for the influx of new residents. Much like the leaders in the early 20th century who had the foresight to dam the Wiccopee Brook in Putnam County, creating the Reservoir to ensure Peekskill always had a water supply, it’s not only prudent – but wise – to look and plan toward the future. And as we saw in Texas recently, planning ahead, while not front-page news, is vital to the standard of living we’ve come to expect.
Ronald Reagan was fond of saying the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” He came from the understanding that private industry could be trusted to look out for the welfare of citizens. It was a mistaken belief in the 1980’s and the fallacy of thinking a market economy would be responsible for keeping infrastructure humming has proven to be shortsighted. The belief that government is a hindrance arises from the inability of government to marshal resources to solve a problem.
Smart government means being able to read the signs of the times. For instance, one of the areas we highlighted was the reliance on the 75 volunteers to staff our fire department. As our population increases, we will need more volunteers, in addition to paid staff, to keep our fire department ready to respond. Culturally, people have less time to devote to civic responsibilities. Membership in organizations like volunteer fire departments and groups such as garden clubs and service associations has been on the decline for decades. This could be looked at as a weakness, but viewing these strong social connections as an asset shifts the situation.
Another characteristic of smart government is listening. Building on the strength and success of the shared history of the volunteer fire department in Peekskill is a starting point for establishing continuity for the future. A strong fire department is more than equipment and a building. The city did an outstanding job in the ‘hard’ infrastructure sphere by consolidating the fire companies into a state-of-the-art Central Fire House. The same amount of intention and dedication is needed around the ‘soft’ infrastructure of people who have relationships that have already created a strong community. By establishing recruitment and education programs now, guided by the current volunteers, the stage is set to embrace the future – instead of looking at it from a place of dread and scarcity.
One of Peekskill’s greatest assets is the sense of community engendered by involvement in both formal and informal social groups and associations. When citizens are viewed by the government as active participants, instead of recipients of services, the social capital of the community becomes a source of constructive energy. The partnerships formed strengthen everyone by multiplying power and effectiveness. Peekskill has a unique opportunity to mine its wealth of engaged citizens. Inviting them to create a comprehensive plan for development would be the ideal use of the collaborative model we’re describing. The absence of such a plan is a serious lack and the smart strategy for the city would be to identify and mobilize what already exists here — a strong web of relationships — and capitalize on it.
By harnessing the energy of the people who live here to create the long-view vision, government officials can use their time more efficiently to manage the nuts and bolts of infrastructure projects. Details such as awarding contracts based on a technical score and itemized budgets requires a creative view of infrastructure management that involves staff time of in-house engineering and project managers.
When government views itself as a conduit for participatory involvement it not only empowers citizens but lives up to the definition given by former Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank: “Government is simply the name we give to things that we choose to do together.”