Interview with H. George Frederickson

The Civic Honors Project had a chance to interview H. George Frederickson who served as President of the American Society for Public Administration and has been honored on numerous occasions for distinguished research and professional service by the American Society for Public Administration and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. H. George Frederickson was appointed Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas in 1987. Professor Frederickson has served as President of Eastern Washington University, faculty at Syracuse University in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. In 1990 he served as a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar in South Korea.

  1. Being involved in several journals such as the Journal of public administration research and theory must give you a chance to read about a wide range of interesting ideas, how many of those ideas are focused on building a stronger community?

Yes, I do read a good bit of the current research. I would estimate that less than 25 percent of it has anything to do with civil society, social capital, citizenship, volunteerism, and the like. There is a group of folks in public administration who work on these subjects but it is by no means the majority.

  1. How important is volunteering to the community and to the management of a city? Where does organizing volunteering fit into intergovernmental relations?

Volunteerism is probably fairly important to the development and maintenance of the community. It is only a minor factor in the management of the city, however. Most cities have full time professional staff members and most citizens are accustomed to dealing with city officials. When you see citizens collectively taking responsibility for some project or activity, it is the exception rather than the rule.

  1. What are the best ways to deliver information to the community? Do you think a technology based delivery mechanism will be effective? What kind of vision does it take at the community level of leadership to be able to motivate individuals to volunteer?

We are just now doing a big study of this subject in Kansas City. In a nutshell, we are attempting to demonstrate that the general media (newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, etc.) are usually of little relevance to community groups and organizations. Because of this, community groups develop their own ?media?. We call this ?Democratic Journalism? or ?Journalism without Journalists.? This is group created media that is group specific. A good bit of it, we think, is based on modern information technology.

Another aspect of our thesis is very Putnam Like ? we claim there is a disconnect between the media and the community. In response, the community simply invents and uses its own media ? often, we think, based on modern information technology.

  1. What role do movements like the civic honors project play in developing community engagement?

I do not know. Certainly it helps the students to learn about how the community groups work. It often helps the groups. But I am beyond what I really know about here.

  1. In the future do you think technology will be able to bring people in the community together or cause a new series of divides?

Based on our research project, we guess that technology will help bring people tighter in specific groups and hold them together. Technology should strengthen groups. But, with stronger groups, there is likely to be more or less overall community cohesion, communication, searching together for the public interest, ETC.? I do not know.

  1. Do the current trends of declining social capital paint a grim picture for the future of volunteering? Readings on engagement and civil society often talk about the changes that are occurring within society, what are the best alternatives suggested to increase engagement in civil society?

On the contrary. Volunteerism is increasing. But, it is increasing in group specific ways. People give time to their church, their neighborhood group, their hobby or interest group. Some things like big groups raising funds to fight diseases (cancer, MS, etc.) get good volunteerism. There is a lot of engagement, but in narrow rather than broad terms.

  1. Is it possible to nurture trends in volunteering at the national level or do will it take the vision of regional and local organizations?

Yes, certainly Peace Corps, Teach for America, and its like are good examples. This is actually a form of modified volunteerism (some pay for living expenses or later taxes, or tuition breaks). But these programs have great appeal. They are national in their organization but very local in their application. All volunteers have to be done their work in a specific school, community, town, etc. There is something important to people who volunteer to be associated with some bigger thing, such as the Peace Corps or Teach for America, even though they know that their actual volunteering will be in some specific place.

  1. How important is volunteering to a community as a whole in the long term?

Probably somewhat important. But, serous community problems often require serious governmental responses. Where volunteering can help is dealing with family issues (Big Brothers and Big Sisters, for example). What government cannot seem to get at are problems with the family as an institution, and volunteer groups can be very helpful here. So can philanthropies.

  1. How does civic participation change the dynamics of the community?

In theory, at least, civic participation engenders a sense of belonging and identification. It engenders a sense of collective responsibility. It probably slows down the machinery of government because civic participation takes time and is often inefficient in administrative terms.

  1. Can programs like graduating with civic honors help change the level of civic participation in the community?

Yes, so long as we recognize that the community belongs to the community in the long run, if the person who graduates with civic honors, becomes an example of civic engagement, a volunteer and a leader of volunteers, a local problem solver, etc., then the civic honors program will have been a success.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank H. George Frederickson for his time and more importantly, the ideas that his writing has inspired. All of his books are recommended and a list can be found online here.

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