The Wisdom of the Crowd in New York City

Actively engaging the crowd, even if it's sometimes rowdy, can actually enhance government's problem-solving ability.
by | February 16, 2011
 

Stephen Goldsmith is deputy mayor of operations for the City of New York.

Recently, the new chancellor of New York City schools, Cathie Black, experienced one of those events all highly committed public officials dread: standing before a crowd containing many angry and upset constituents. Shouting punctuated the meeting, which dealt with (among other subjects) the phasing out of several chronically failing schools. Others who wished to speak did not get to have their voices heard through the interruptions.

I have not discussed this event with the chancellor, but one can easily imagine that as the meeting continued past midnight, she may not have been reflecting warmly on the wisdom of the crowd.

It is easy to look upon democracy at such moments and question the benefit when an angry crowd confronts a public official. The nation saw much the same thing at a series of town hall meetings on the topic of health care reform in the summer of 2009.

But even if such events discomfit public officials, something of value takes place during these exchanges. Public officials have a chance to hear directly from constituents, and the public official can explain the reasons behind their actions. Even if attendees don't agree, they at least leave with a better understanding of the difficult choices facing public leaders.

Right now, New York City government is rolling out many "crowdsourcing" tools that rest on the proposition that an informed (and sometimes even enraged) public can indeed provide wise counsel. With budget shortfalls looming, tough decisions lie ahead. In an ongoing commitment to transparency, the city is aggressively pursuing both in-person and online opportunities for the full and frank exchange of views.

One recent initiative aims to expand public awareness and feedback on new regulations. For example, a newly effective City Council law requires the mayor's relatively small operations team to evaluate new agency rules before publication -- analyzing whether the rule is understandable and in plain language, how the rule minimizes compliance costs and the availability of a cure period if the rule establishes a violation or penalty. The complexity and volume of these rules makes such evaluation challenging. So while the operational review can improve a proposed rule, the public can make it even better.

For that reason, the city is developing a policy to ensure agencies utilize existing Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools to heighten public awareness of proposed agency rules and new rules soon taking effect. Additionally, the city is working to strengthen and improve "NYC Rules" -- a centralized portal launched last year that allows the public to comment on proposed agency rules. We are also exploring opportunities to garner even greater participation in the rulemaking process, similar to efforts at the federal level.

The resulting conversation may lack sophisticated economic empiricism, but it can quickly capture a broad array of useful anecdotes that shows a proposed rule's potentially harmful impact. And where appropriate, agencies can modify their proposals to achieve the underlying goals without unduly impacting New Yorkers.

Many government decisions have unintended consequences, and public engagement helps anticipate what those might be. Congress is in the process of repealing one feature of health care reform -- the 1099 reporting of any business expense in excess of $600 -- that was creating undue reporting hardship on small business. This exercise could have been avoided if Congress had done a better job of listening to citizen concerns in the first place.

In addition to helping stop bad ideas, crowdsourcing tools can help develop good ideas. Community activists and other stakeholders in New York City will soon be able to join online discussions to share localized knowledge that will help them constructively engage with government-and more effectively direct the investment of very scarce public resources.

For example, the city's Department of Environmental Protection recently launched an initiative to capture stormwater runoff called the NYC Green Infrastructure Program. This initiative includes a community grant program that invites local groups to offer their suggestions about specific green infrastructure investments and apply for funding to make them a reality. The city hopes this site will help us to capture ideas on how to reduce storm runoff-including where trees and tree boxes could capture runoff, or where other permeable surfaces or grassy strips might be added.

Some public officials worry that the crowds may not offer wisdom so much as collective noise and obstructionism. In today's 24/7 news cycle, the media can take any comment and turn it into an unpleasant story.

However, my experience in several decades of public service suggests that those agitated with the performance of public officials already have plenty of avenues to express their disappointment. Those who want to voice a constructive criticism are the ones who get shouted down.

Which takes me back to Cathie Black's long night. The citizen with a thoughtful idea is not always the loudest. Many citizens with legitimate concerns or constructive suggestions may not enjoy either crowds or microphones. Avenues for their civic engagement ought to exist too. Ms. Black deserves credit for keeping the dialogue open, listening to the concerns of as many parents as possible -- but online mechanisms can also help broaden the dialogue.

Interactive community discussions -- whether online or in person -- can produce insights that one-way communication does not. Citizens and public officials educate each other during these exchanges. Actively engaging the sometimes rowdy crowd can actually enhance government's problem-solving ability and is an enriching aspect of democracy.

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