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Art Chang

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New York City's Pursuit of a Model for 21st Century Democracy

Posted: 10/31/11 07:14 PM ET

Does one need any further proof of the disconnect between people and government than Occupy Wall Street? Here in New York City -- the largest city in the country, the home of Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street -- a public and private partnership is attempting to address this disconnect head-on.

We must find ways to reinvigorate the process of electing our leaders, beginning with a dramatic rethinking of the way we communicate about, and hold, our elections. We believe New Yorkers can and should be empowered to have their voices heard in real-time, in aggregate numbers, where elected representatives can have more direct and transparent relationships with the people they represent. But these ideas must not be a one-way, top-down conversation from the government to the people; instead, it must truly be "of the people, by the people and for the people."

On Tuesday, November 1 at 10 a.m., New Yorkers and all Americans will get their chance to have a voice at the first step in this process, and it will look unlike any typical public process. It doesn't take a policy wonk to know that government is uniquely bad at eliciting public input (just watch C-SPAN for a few minutes).

On Tuesday, we will turn the "public hearing" inside out, putting ordinary New Yorkers on center stage and politicians and special interest groups in the back of the audience. Beloved talk show host Brian Lehrer will serve as emcee, using his magic touch and the platform afforded by his public radio station and award-winning talk show, WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, to stimulate conversation among ordinary New Yorkers, Occupy Wall Street organizers, and a few special guests, while fielding questions and comments from the public via calls, texts, Tweets and Facebook posts, which will be visible to everyone online.

The focus is on New York, but everyone is invited to participate. It is clear that what we're doing in New York City is needed across the entire country and, yes, globally. This is just the starting point.

National issues dominate the media, but local programs and policies arguably have a greater direct impact on our daily lives and yet citizens are growing less connected to their local politics with each passing year.  

A generation ago, 80 percent turnout on Election Day was the norm. In November 2009, by contrast, fewer than one in three registered voters cast a ballot for mayor in New York City, a distressing statistic that is echoed across the country.

At the same time, in recent years we've witnessed a revolution in the way people access, receive, and share information.  Yet the public conversation about democracy is still conducted largely through expensive, one-way and non-participatory media like television, radio, and mail that fail to foster informed participation by citizens, especially young people.

Imagine a digital public square that links the formal democratic process directly to our existing social networks, making voters and candidates equal partners about the future, supported by technologies like Google, Facebook and text messaging that have already revolutionized the way people access, receive and share other information.

We can help transform our democracy by making powerful communications tools available as a public good. We should build on the success of New York City's pioneering system of public campaign financing for elections, which helps balance the influence of special interests by amplifying a broader range of citizen voices.

Occupy Wall Street began in New York City. And New York City should be a model for 21st century democracy: a scalable, sustainable, flexible platform that can then be used to serve New York and the country -- and inspire others globally.

Join me on Tuesday, November 1 at 10 a.m. EST to add your voice to this important conversation, tweet (@BrianLehrer #NYCVOTES) or text ("NYCVOTES" to 30644) your questions or comments. And by all means listen on the radio (93.9 and 820am in New York) or webcast.