The Potential of Civic Leaders to Leverage Technology

By Lee Fisher

Lee Fisher is President and CEO of CEOs for Cities. Prior, Lee served as Ohio Lt. Governor, Director of the Ohio Department of Development (“ODOD”), Chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, Ohio Attorney General (“OAG”), State Senator and State Representative.

It seems that we are all entrenched in a world full of mobile devices and wireless connections, providing ready access to the digital world. This connection has been said to limit the connectivity we’ve fostered with other people and the community around us. In reality, however, the digital world has opened up a clear pathway to understanding, navigating, and improving our cities in many different ways.

As mentioned in a blog posted on CEOs for Cities’ website titled Digitizing the Public Sphere, our public space has evolved to include the online platforms we use daily. The potential for our civic leaders to leverage this technology is incredible—the hangup is that it has to be intentional to be effective. So many leaders and agencies bemoan the lack of input they get from their constituencies and residents, citing weak attendance at public meetings and involvement by only those angry with the decisions being made. Only soliciting the ideas of residents in an archaic, often confusing (and let’s be serious, boring) meeting in a church basement isn’t always going to get people excited or talking. We need to rethink the ways we reach out, and the potential of the tools both on and off the net.

Change By Us is an online platform designed to foster public engagement through collective imagination, participation, and action. It is just one tool that is being used to connect citizens to their place, but satisfies three very important rules for engagement:

  1. It finds people where they are
  2. Users don’t voice their ideas on deaf ears
  3. It facilitates action

The tool, created by Local Projects in partnership with CEOs for Cities, has been implemented in three different metropolitan regions: New York, Phoenix, and Philadelphia.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg demonstrates the intentionality of one leader in utilizing technology for reaching out to his own constituency:

[blockquote align=”left” cite=”Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City”]The whole idea behind ‘Change By Us’ is that any one of our city’s 8.4 million residents could come up with a great idea to improve our city’s future. And by working together, we can turn those great ideas into action and see the results in our communities and neighborhoods.[/blockquote]

Intention is only one piece of the puzzle, however. We need to examine how this tool is living up to the idea of effective engagement.

It finds people where they are.

With so many people using the Internet today, it is seems far more likely a citizen will lend an idea on a website than head to city hall on a Thursday morning. Change By Us increases citizens’ accessibility by finding them where they already are talking (online), and breaking down barriers to civic engagement by eliminating time and geographic restrictions. It only takes a minute to write your idea and press the send button!

Users don’t voice their ideas on deaf ears.

An important piece of communication is that it involves both a sender and a receiver. Having a group of people excited around improvements to be made in the city is great… but without someone listening that can make those changes the full potential of the platform is left unrealized. Change By Us NYC is run and championed by the Mayor’s office—making the pathway of these ideas to decision-makers vastly closer.

It facilitates action.

There is very little value to a technological tool fostering engagement if that communication ultimately leads to nothing being done. Change By Us not only allows civic leaders to understand the needs and be inspired by the ideas of their residents, but it also serves as a platform for organizing the resources for projects and disseminating grants for citizen-run initiatives. Thanks to Change By Us NYC, more than 2,500 users have directly interfaced with city leaders by submitting suggestions for urban improvements. Building on those suggestions, several-hundred neighborhood projects are now underway.  Of those projects, 19 received grants from the City of New York, and 611 volunteers have worked together to make the crowd-sourced suggestions a reality. Ranging from a 1.5-acre community garden in Brownsville to a neighborhood chicken coop in Mott Haven, citizens are actively engaged in projects across all five boroughs.

As mentioned, this tool isn’t the only one of its kind. The increasing desire of civic leaders to digitally connect with their residents has lead to an influx of tech companies engineering these platforms. It is, however, important for these leaders to understand what makes a tool effective, and how they can best use it to serve the needs of their community. The success of Change By Us shows us that meaningful change can be achieved by effective digital engagement, and great ideas are sometimes just a click away.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

5 Comments

  1. John Lehnert

    I find a couple of things compelling about this technology:
    Building off of the idea that citizens won’t often attend hearings, this technology dramatically lowers the barrier for participation. By so doing, it helps ensure many voices are heard, other than the ones that are sometimes organized to overwhelm public hearings.

    And after reviewing some of the comments posted on the Phoenix site, I was pleased to see that the suggestions aren’t just about potholes…given the ability to join the conversation (and the awareness that they are being taken seriously), thoughtful, generous comments are being posted as well.

    Reply
  2. Rebecca Williams

    As a young planner, I feel fortunate to be of this generation where the feedback we desire as planners is getting increasingly easier to access and excited about the accompanying (and parallel) increase in potential for that feedback to be more meaningful.

    There have been many, many, apps and efforts in the vein of civic engagement (see: Mindmixer, Neighborland; see: http://commons.codeforamerica.org/apps) as of late. It is exciting to see programs like Change by Us take on some of the key difficulties of this movement by successfully generating a critical mass of engagement, by being a platform that is directly engaged with local government, and by being a model that is transferable amongst cities. It is inspiring and fascinating seeing complicated and large cities like New York act as incubators for these services.

    Reply
  3. Maiyue Cheng

    Very encouraging initiative out of this case Change by Us – and I think that its influence will quickly transcend beyond the 3 pilot cities due to the following:

    1) Resource efficiency: very efficient application out of social network / mobile data platforms for betterment of public service
    2) Effective public participation: showcasing the trend of rallying public support via crowd-sourcing: probably the most effective channel to identify issues truly matter with citizens
    3) PPP potentail: it is only the beginning for more innovative approaches to get introduced by various partners from private / NGO worlds to augment civic leaders’ effort

    I would be very happy to see this type of pilots get landing in the largest urbanization country of today – China. Based here in Beijing I can clearly see tremendous benefit to its 20 m residents by this approach. Would be more than happy to lend a hand if we can help such a collaboration across the Pacific.

    Way to go, CEO for Cities and Change by Us!

    Reply
  4. Tara D. Sturm

    Thank you all for your feedback. We’re very excited about the new iteration of the technology and the excitement surrounding it!

    Reply
  5. Jenny Fogarty

    Thanks for the introduction to this inspiring “civic social network” led by CEOs for Cities and Local Projects, proactively leveraging innovative (and user-friendly) technology to increase the number of voices being heard. Can’t wait till it comes to San Francisco!

    How does it account for city dwellers who don’t regularly access the internet, who may be the same residents whose voices are less likely to be heard on large urban planning issues at traditional community meetings?

    So far, this seems like a fantastic pilot and I can’t wait to hear more about what comes out of this digital engagement initiative to turn even more great, local ideas into action.

    Reply

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