I recently flew down to San Pedro Garza Garcia, a city next to Monterrey, Mexico, for a quick trip to help launch DesafíoSP (‘Desafio’ translates to ‘Challenge’). I was invited by Dinorah Cantú-Pedraza, who runs NYU’s GovLab Academy, and helped organize the challenge, together with Graciela Reyes, the City Councilwoman who made the project happen, and Miguel Salazar of Codeando México, the country’s Code for All Brigade.

DesafíoSP reminded me of the most recent incarnation of NYC’s BigApps. Like BigApps, DesafíoSP focused on where technology, data, and innovation can improve residents’ lives. The list of finalist teams is an exciting mix of projects, including work to make government data more transparent and accessible, to capture more value from the city’s waste streams, to create geospatial maps of the community, and multiple projects to protect pedestrians from auto traffic.

While BigApps began as an open challenge to encourage New Yorkers to build apps powered by open government data, it has evolved over the years into a more sophisticated model where teams co-design solutions with the people they’re working to benefit. DesafíoSP is starting at this point, and is especially focused on the participatory governance benefits of the program. The residents who participate have already made serious commitments of time and energy to improving their community, and will continue to as the program goes on. They will be coached by others who have embarked on similar projects, thanks to the GovLab Academy, and they’ll be connected to the offices and agencies doing related work in the public sector.

Below are my remarks from the launch event, edited for brevity:

Programs like DesafíoSP and BigApps NYC present an important question, as surveys show that people have lost faith in public institutions: What would it take to have a government that we truly believe in?

It’s quite easy to lose faith in our government when it doesn’t do what we want, or doesn’t do anything at all. The greater challenge is to help design a government that’s worthy of your involvement. The key word there is ‘help’ — we need to show up. Not just on Election Day, but also by participating in the many new programs designed to bring the people’s expertise to bear on public sector challenges.

How can we redesign our governments to invite people to take part in the first place? What would it look like if voting and taxes weren’t the only times you thought about your government? It won’t surprise anyone when I say that I think technology can help answer this question. But technology doesn’t automatically lead to better government.

In a lot of ways, technology has empowered individuals more than it has empowered our shared collective. But technology can do more than just enhance the agency of the individual. Technology can improve the shared group, too. We can make better groups, and collaborate better. We can use technology to discover new participants across very large groups of people that we previously couldn’t, as GovLab’s expert network projects seek to do. We can match problems to the people with experience solving that kind of problem.

For participatory government to work, we need two things:

  1. We need more people to know how their government functions.
  2. We need their government to open up more to more people.

It’s frequently said in civic tech circles that our governments organize 21st century citizens with 18th century technologies. There are good reasons for representation; Not everyone should have to spend all day reading legislation. There are also bad reasons for representation, like a fear of what citizens will do if they’re fully engaged. Representation allows us to become lazy as citizens, and forces our representatives and government employees to do all of the work.

We need to do a better of job communicating to the public what government does, who it’s for, and what all of these municipal departments actually do. What do all those government employees do? That park I bring my dog to each morning – who fought to create it, and where do I show up to keep it there? We need to tell the stories of the public sector – we can’t assume people will just trust institutions as they might have in the past.

There’s so much value the rest of us can contribute to government to improve it, to make it worthy of its ideals of serving all and lifting our community. But we can’t access that value if our government won’t acknowledge it or expend the energy to organize it.

Now, maybe all of this is obvious. But it’s really hard to actually do the things i’m saying.

What if I came to you at your job, in your busiest time of year, and said, I’ve got 50 people who want to help, but they don’t know how to do your job. Can you train them, and hold their hand, and find them work that’s appropriate for their skill level and background and degree of motivation each day?

You’d kick me out of your office.

So, how do we bring the public into the public sector?

We gathered to mark the launch of DesafíoSP, and to celebrate the government opening up to not just include, but really leverage the people it represents. We’re celebrating the people leading the way with projects to reinvent their communities, and their government in the process. With your expertise, your commitment, we will point a new way forward.

The municipality, Codeando México, and the Govlab Academy launched a call not just for solutions, but for solutions and involvement. And the people answered.

It wasn’t easy. There’s a big time commitment. More meetings and phone calls after a day of work. Very few of the people participating in DesafíoSP work for the municipality. All of the people live or work here and care about this place.

You probably know, there are two categories of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. And when surveyed, you spoke of the impact of getting something done.

These are the projects you’re going to get done. Wanting to see something through for the sake of the result, not prize money or the glory of winning. That’s intrinsic motivation.

That drive, to contribute to changing something for the better, and your acting on that drive, is what will make this work worth your commitment, in the end.

Getting stuff done is where local governments can really excel.

 

While there can be a variety of barriers to successfully doing something, one limit to getting things done at the local government level is often as simple as someone raising their hand to do it.

San Pedro, you raised your hand.

From pedestrian improvements and composting to government transparency, you’ve identified exciting areas to update and improve where you live. You submitted projects from the public sector and the private, as committed individuals who built a team, and as existing groups re-engaging.

You represent a range of ages, professional backgrounds, and life experiences.

The Coaching program you’re embarking on is unique. It’s tailored to help you accomplish the impact that set you on this course to begin with. So you’ll be trained, and connected with others who have done similar work, and provided guidance by experts.

And I hope that even after recruiting your team, you will continue to connect others to your projects, to involve the communities around you early and often. Because your project will be most successful if it’s adopted, if you are not it’s only champion.

Thanks to Dinorah Cantu and Beth Noveck and codeando mexico, we’re moving in the right direction. Thanks to the leadership of San Pedro Garza Garcia, we have a place to experiment. Technology can improve how we do this. San Pedro Garza Garcia could be to participatory citizenships what Porto Alegre was to participatory budgeting – a shining example for the rest of the world to watch, and then, when things go well, to point to, in their own town meetings and government boards, and say, “Hey, why don’t we try that, too?”

NYC wasn’t the first city to do participatory budgeting. It now distributes $32 million a year guided by a public election rather than a government official. 27 city councilors participate.

In Boston, youth who can’t even vote, who have every reason to treat government like a faceless entity, have already had the experience of directing public funds towards improvements they specifically want to see to their neighborhoods.

With work, we can move the system in the right direction. It begins with a strong pilot. And from there, it can grow, to a handful of pilots, and then ongoing commitments. Maybe next it becomes a trend. And sooner than later, if we keep working at it, our innovation becomes so successful, we stop noticing that we do it this way. Like libraries and subways and NASA and all the other shifts in our idea of what the public sector can achieve, we’ll know we’ve accomplished victory when we completely take it for granted that one of the fundamental parts of an effective government is the contributions of its talented citizenry.

We’re all here in this together, and the point of having a public sector and a government isn’t to rule, it’s to bring us together to get things done. When the very idea of government and shared investments like public education are under attack, we need to prove that we’re better together every once in awhile.

That’s exactly why we’re here together today. By signing up to participate, by coming together to improve San Pedro, you’re living out the highest ideals of what government should be. Congratulations and please, lead the way.

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