The Detroit water crisis and unexpected coalitions
Recent research sheds light on the power that various actors have to help stabilize declining institutions. Research by A. Wren Montgomery of Western University and M. Tina Dacin of Queen’s University in Canada, published in Academy of Management Journal, looked at Detroit’s water crisis and found that various groups that were traditionally divided came together—and were able to accomplish more than traditional leaders typically can on their own.
In Detroit, these divergent parties felt a deep commitment to public water services—but from different perspectives. “Contrary to, or in spite of, the deep divides we had expected among actors involved with public water services in Detroit, participants shared a common dedication to foundations of the institution of public water services (public ownership and employment, clean and safe water, affordability, equal access),” the researchers wrote.
They fit into four main categories:
- Practitioners, or institutional insiders—many of whom worked in water services––fought for the institution’s traditions of public employment.
- Warriors were NGO activists, often focused on environmental issues. They had an existing interest in water issues, but the link to social issues in Detroit was new to many of them. They believed in the concept of water as commons.
- Converts to the cause were rooted in Detroit’s social and justice issues, but they hadn’t paid much attention to how water was linked to their own causes. They included community leaders motivated by the notions of rights and equal access.
- Agnostics, such as analysts and government and corporate executives, had typically been isolated from these problems, so their engagement was often unexpected. But they demonstrated a strong attachment to these issues, motivated by the lack of safe, clean drinking water and looming health issues.
These stakeholders took on different roles and framed their arguments in different ways, but they all worked to raise awareness of water as a valuable, finite resource and to get commitment to protect it. Today, the water problems in Detroit remain, but they have improved.
What these groups accomplished together “gave water services in Detroit—and beyond—some new life: new interest, awareness of its importance, and more awareness of and help for those who are unable to pay,” Montgomery said. “The awareness of water as a right spread elsewhere,” from Flint and Standing Rock to Ireland.
And this research has implications beyond water systems. Montgomery and Dacin noted that “institutions that do not attract a distributed web of support, or for which custodians do not emerge and intersect in a timely manner, may be vulnerable to instability and failure.”
Their findings suggest that institutions in decline “may serve as a rallying point for the emergence of unexpected coalitions that have the rare potential to cross ideological and political divides.” And when different groups’ interests overlap, more people are motivated to get involved.