Government: “It’s the problem and the solution.”

by: Mostafa Aniss

This past week, I re-looked at some of our team’s data on the perception of water shutoffs in Detroit, from suburban residents’ perspective. As a person who grew up in a suburban neighborhood with never-ending access to water, I found myself identifying with many of these perceptions. The most interesting of these relatable perceptions, though, is the contradictory view of Detroit’s government. That is, their role as “the problem and the solution” when it comes to the Detroit water shutoffs.  

Indeed, the first thing that stuck out to me, after re-examining our data with a fresh eye, was two contradicting themes: “Government’s fault” and “Governing solution.” Basically, a closer look at the data showed that many suburban residents viewed the government and policy makers as responsible for the shutoffs in Detroit. In the same vein, though, they also viewed that government as the solution.

In making sense of the government solution (new policy makers): I am conflicted. I know some people believe that new policy makers could solve the problem by raising taxes and/or giving people more time to pay their water bill. And of course, there are those who think that policy makers around Detroit water do not care about Detroit residents. So, on face, it is simple to proclaim that better government can address these concerns. My hesitancy stems from the reality that these views have already been discussed with current policy makers in Detroit. So, given these discussions have yet to yield a government-led resolution, I worry that the most optimal resolution is in a blindspot that can only be revealed once we look beyond this scope.

As for government being the problem, I worry that blaming the government disempowers Detroit residents. That is, by asserting that the shutoffs are the government’s doing, there is an implication that the government is imposing its power on Detroit’s people, as opposed to Detroit residents “letting” that government do so. I guess you can call this a “glass half full or half empty” situation. Indeed, examining the issue via the “letting” lens, I think, could engender an epiphany amongst Detroit residents’ related to their (lack of) agency and, in turn, (hopefully) lead to a collaborative (i.e., between government and its people) solution. What would that look like, you ask? I do not know, specifically. But I do know that this agency would, ipso facto, create higher levels of engagement in the Detroit community, which seems like an excellent start towards solving this problem.

The most ironic part of this blog writing process is the similarity between my positionally and what these suburban participants are saying. Admittedly, if I were interviewed by one of my team members on this issue, prior to analyzing this data, I would point to the government as the problem and solution, too. I guess it is just easier than considering what my role, or our role, could be to solve this problem. Reflection, I suppose, is part of the journey to understanding.

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