NEW YORK — In a city of millions, how many people go knocking on the door of City Hall?
Most citizens know that, at least in theory, they can bring their problems and ideas to elected officials. But in reality, speaking at a public hearing, calling a complaint line or writing a letter can be time-consuming and seem to make little impact, with small-scale concerns getting bogged down in dense bureaucracies.
Now, New York and other cities around the country are trying to un-bog the bureaucracy. Following the example of private companies, they're employing technology to harness the wisdom of citizens, make use of their skills and create virtual civic forums.
New York will soon be asking the public to make suggestions online and by text message about how to make the city greener and more sustainable; people who submit ideas will be invited to join with others to make similar changes happen.
In California, the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District recently released an iPhone app that will alert citizens trained in CPR when someone nearby is having a heart attack.
San Francisco city employees joined forces online to propose and vote on thrifty ideas, leading the city to stop paying $900 a month for the music callers heard when they were put on hold. New York City began a similar employee program last month.
Government officials tout such projects as money-savers that increase efficiency and improve transparency. Citizen advocates for the programs argue they offer something deeper – an opportunity to reignite civic responsibility and community participation.
In some ways, the new approach is simply a high-tech version of an old concept, says Ben Berkowitz, the CEO of SeeClickFix, which helps citizens post pothole-type complaints and track whether they've been addressed.
"It's participatory democracy," he says. "Open government ... is something that was laid out by Thomas Jefferson pretty early on. This is just a way to realize that vision."
In recent years, businesses have used the Internet to cull the wisdom of crowds to do everything from design shoes to publish books, a practice known as "crowdsourcing." As the approach has caught on in the civic sphere, entrepreneurs and activists who support it have begun calling it "open government" or "Gov 2.0."
"The solutions to urban problems are not just the city government handing down ideas from on high. It's about collaborative citizenship," says Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, which is partnering with New York City to gather citizen input on environmental improvements. The Give a Minute program has already undergone trial runs in Memphis and Chicago, where it asked residents to answer questions about how to increase public transit usage and about developing their professional skills.
New York is planning similar programs to tackle other issues.
Deputy Mayor for Operations Stephen Goldsmith said all the city's agencies have been ordered to use social media to seek public comment on proposed rules. He envisions a day when city residents who opt in will receive Facebook notifications regarding proposals and civic issues most relevant to their interests or neighborhood, and will be invited to offer input.
Comptroller John Liu – responsible for performing audits on the city's agencies – is asking citizens to help him decide which departments and practices to investigate.
For now, a city Web page asking residents to make money-saving suggestions is little more than a digital suggestion box, but participants eventually will be able to see each other's ideas and vote for those they most like.
The city's workers already have that option – and the ideas that receive the most votes get evaluated by deputy mayors. As a result of that crowdsourcing effort, which formally began last month, the city has ordered all its offices to change their printer settings so that documents print double-sided by default. Other ideas suggested by city employees have included the creation of a central research and development unit to help connect agencies with new initiatives, as well as an online auction portal allowing city agencies to bid on items being given up by other agencies.
The interest in this tech-age brand of populism has attracted both activists and entrepreneurs – and people who straddle both worlds.
One effort launched this year, Code for America, recruits technology developers and entrepreneurs before they enter lucrative careers, persuading them to give a year of service in exchange for a stipend. Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, D.C, are hosting fellows this year. New York City officials have met with the organization about the possibility of being included in the program next year.
At the federal level, President Barack Obama has ordered agencies to "improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration" into their work. Last month, the federal government finished collecting input from hundreds of people around the world on how it can best use technology to consult citizens. Even NASA has enlisted the help of the crowd, asking the public to use images from Mars to count craters and help create better maps of the planet.
Internationally, Ireland has made use of crowdsourcing. Last year, thousands of private citizens competed online for two 100,000-euro prizes, submitting proposals to create jobs and transform the economy. The government of Flanders began a similar program in September.
In New York City, officials say the efforts could ultimately save the city millions of dollars. The city – like so many others – is facing a budget crunch and anticipating hundreds of municipal worker layoffs, but Goldsmith says he doesn't believe the information gathered will replace city jobs.
"What it will do is make the work of city officials more productive and effective," he said.
But Mario Cilento, chief of staff of the New York State AFL-CIO, which represents many city workers, said he was wary of any program that replaces the wisdom of city workers with that of laymen.
"Because I watch 'Grey's Anatomy,' that doesn't make me a doctor," he said. "We're never satisfied when you substitute inexperienced individuals for those who have years of knowledge, experience and a high level of skill."
When the 6,500-person city of Manor, Texas, chose to shift to a "Gov 2.0" approach, it was in part out of financial concerns: Officials there decided they wanted to engage residents and beef up services beyond the means of their modest budget.
Within a year, nearly one-third of the community had joined the project, and the city set up a new billing system, changed trash pickups and made work orders viewable to the public, said Dustin Haisler, who at the time was the city's chief information officer. It was quite a shift from the days when citizen engagement meant vainly trying to persuade people to attend public hearings.
Haisler – who has since moved on to Spigit, the company providing the technology powering New York's employee-idea forum – says that such projects aren't built on a handover of a city's discretion to its people, but rather a bridging of the divide between citizens and government. It's a system that only works when governments are completely open with the public about what they do after receiving suggestions, he says.
"We're faced with so many challenges in government. We really have to look to other ways of solving them," he said. "This can allow citizens to help us solve some of the biggest problems that we have."