Review: Citizens

"The absolute precondition for the Citizen Story is belief in ourselves and in human nature as creative, capable, and caring, rather than lazy, self-interested, and competitive within a zero-sum framework."

— Jon Alexander, Ariane Conrad

Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything Is All of Us

Luke Fretwell By Luke Fretwell · September 26, 2022

No matter what your line of work is, we’re all selling something.

The most successful individuals (entrepreneurs, activists, politicians) or organizations (corporations, nonprofits, government) know that productization and an overarching narrative are critical in getting others to buy into whatever it is they’re selling.

We’re also non-stop consuming, not just products and services, but also ideas.

As Jon Alexander and Ariane Conrad write in “Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything Is All of Us,” we’re entrenched in the Consumer Story, however, it’s time to shift to a new narrative: the Citizen Story.

“The absolute precondition for the Citizen Story is belief in ourselves and in human nature as creative, capable, and caring, rather than lazy, self-interested, and competitive within a zero-sum framework,” write Alexander and Conrad. “Any attempt to redesign our institutions will fail if we haven’t embraced this fundamental belief.”

Alexander’s Citizen origin story began when he became disenchanted with his work in the advertising industry — learning we consume an estimated 3,000 commercial messages a day and concerned about the impact that has on us as a society. He set off on a new course of meaning. That purpose has taken shape as the New Citizenship Project, a consultancy he co-founded with Irenie Ekkeshis that positions itself as a “social innovation lab” to “help catalyse the shift to a more participatory society.”

In “Citizens,” the authors directly address the semantics of ‘citizens’ and ‘citizenship’, acknowledging they are triggering terms in today’s political climate. They distinguish between citizenship (“a muscle, something we build the more we exercise it”) and citizenship-as-a-status (“heavy and charged, a powerful carrier of the xenophobic opposition of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ that underlies nationalism and protectionism”).

“The language of Citizenship is crucial, and the contest for its meaning is one that must be engaged in, not conceded,” they write. “The Citizenship at the heart of this book is not a question of what passport we hold, it is a story of who we are as human beings; a question of what we can do and what we should. In these terms, there is no human – regardless of their papers, passports, or criminal record — who cannot be a Citizen, and no limit to what Citizens can do.”

Furthermore, citizens are “people who actively shape the world around us, who cultivate meaningful connections to their community and institutions, who can imagine a different and better life, who care and take responsibility, and who create opportunities for others to do the same.”

The precursor to the Citizen Story is the Consumer Story, and before that, the Subject Story.

The Subject Story (as in the king’s subjects) is where “the Great Man — the Chief, Pope, King, Boss, Father — knows best. The rest of us are innocents, ignorant of important matters. We must rely on him to chart the way forward and declare our duties. Our part is to obey and accept what we are given. In return, he will protect us and maintain order, a deal that is more attractive the greater the danger. Governments and organisations that arise out of the Subject Story are paternalistic and hierarchical, with the inherently superior few at the top of the pyramid.”

Eventually, the Industrial Revolution replaced the Subject Story with the Consumer Story. The authors cite the year 1984 as an inflection point for the Consumer Story, tipping us towards identity consumption, including key events such as the launch of Apple’s Macintosh, The Body Shop’s public offering, the Los Angeles Summer Olympics and Band Aid. Identity consumption helps us feel better about ourselves, and in some cases altruistic, but it’s not the narrative that will change the world.

The Consumer Story “tells us we are entitled and passive: we are to be sold to and served … Even the basics of democracy have been affected by the expansion of the Consumer Story, with the role of the individual limited to voting at most, and that on the basis of a choice as to which of the options available will provide the best service.”

According to Alexander and Conrad, citizen organizations are “rooted in a deep and resilient belief in humanity; a belief that, given the right conditions, it is a human nature to want to contribute positively and meaningfully to shape the communities and societies we are part of; and that the capability to make such a contribution is also universal … Citizen organizations adopt core processes that are designed to make those contributions possible. They are open and transparent; they show their work; and they invite participation at every available opportunity.”

In “Citizens,” the authors directly address government’s relationship with these stories:

“In the Subject Story, governments represent the God-given elite who can and should tell us what to do because they know best. In the Consumer Story, government becomes just another service provider. In the Citizen Story, the purpose of government is to provide the space and the means for us to come together to meet our collective needs, be they urgent and immediate or ongoing and sustained – but stopping well short of doing it for us … The purpose of government is to enable people to make our society better ourselves, not to do it for us, or to us.”

The most celebrated example of government following the Citizen Story narrative is Taiwan’s Gov Zero movement, which included civic hackers re-imagining Taiwan digital services from the outside. One of its leaders – Audrey Tang – now serves as Taiwan’s minister of digital affairs and is extremely influential and widely respected around the world for their open approach to democracy and technology.

Other author examples of the Citizen Story include open innovation challenge prizes, volunteering programs, mutual aid, participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies and crowdfunding.

In the book, the authors deconstruct how organizations, including Patagonia, can incorporate the ”Citizens” framework into their operations. I’d like to turn the table on the New Citizenship Project and provide suggestions on how it can do the same.

The productization and marketing of “Citizens” and New Citizenship Project services feels more like it’s working from the Consumer Story playbook. On the New Citizenship Project website homepage, there’s the pitch, team photos, customer logos, and a pop-up to buy the book (“Jon’s book”). It’s a sales brochure when it could be a faster entree to the Citizen Story.

The strategy of packaging your thoughts and framework into a formal book that then needs to be marketed and purchased or used as a collateral piece for consulting services is a relic of the Consumer Story. There’s a huge opportunity to turn the stories and collateral – the book and report – into Creative Commons resources that inspire others to steal, remix and exponentially grow the Citizen movement.

Currently, the only New Citizenship Project artifact licensed under Creative Commons is This is the #CitizenShift: A Guide to Understanding & Embracing the Emerging Era of the Citizen, an excellent resource, but in an inaccessible, proprietary format (PDF).

Of course, people have to make money, but when you’re championing a citizen-focused worldview, that ethos should be baked into everything you do – from marketing yourself in a non-traditional, open source way to providing equal access to those who could benefit from it, and not just those who can afford it.

Give the world the what, who and how. By making the material open and accessible, we can all benefit from the Citizen Story philosophy (and, ideally, more people will buy the book and New Citizenship Project services).

For better or worse, we’ll always have one foot in either the Subject or Consumer stories (or both) for years to come, but what Alexander and Conrad have given us is an inspirational framework that helps society shift to a new narrative.

The productization and consumption of the Citizen Story is important. If you’re buying anything these days, let it be more of this.

Me? I’m sold.

Book club

Luke Fretwell is founder of GovFresh. He is the co-founder and CEO of ProudCity.

License

This work by GovFresh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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