On the Politics of Civic Engagement

Boulder faces an interesting decision in the wake of an Ignite Boulder talk by Code for America’s Becky Boone, exhorting a relatively young, tech-savvy audience to engage in the city’s civic sphere. Some have objected to her use of profanity, but given the positive response of the 21 and over crowd and the content of past Ignite talks, these concerns are overblown. Daily Camera columnist Steve Pomerance and neighborhood blogger Kay MacDonald have tried to level a more substantive criticism: they feel that Boone’s presentation was pro-growth, and that such advocacy would be inappropriate for even an off-duty city consultant.

I’ve watched the talk repeatedly, and transcribed it word-for-word.  Boone clearly takes no such stance.

She highlights the accessibility and value of participating in our local democracy, and gives a couple of positive examples: the Fairview High Net Zero Club’s campaign to implement a grocery bag fee, and an unidentified citizen group gathering signatures for a fall ballot measure whose content is unmentioned. She also asks her audience their thoughts on whether Boulder’s housing issues result from too many jobs, or insufficient housing — a question that’s been raised by Boulder Housing Partners commissioner Dick Harris, among others.

None of these statements is political advocacy.

Rather, the political content of Ms. Boone’s presentation resides with her choice of audience. The Ignite crowd and Boulder’s startup community are younger and newer to Boulder than those traditionally engaged in city governance. They’re also probably more likely to be renters. Despite the city’s laudable efforts to recruit representative citizen working groups, these demographics have been woefully underrepresented in our housing policy process.  We know this because we’ve collected demographic data at the city’s housing events. Engaging the Ignite Boulder audience makes our discussion more representative of our citizenry. This is good for our democracy.  It also has political implications.

By definition, rallying a disinterested population to participate dilutes the power of those who are already engaged. To their credit, and despite this difficult set of political incentives, the city has prioritized “developing new approaches and tools that support more inclusive, transparent, collaborative, and interactive community engagement” in the development of our Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This is exactly the job that Becky Boone was hired to do, and which she has apparently done a bit too well for the comfort of some incumbent interests.

We now have a choice, and it’s an unavoidably political choice.  Do we want to cultivate a representative democracy in Boulder that proactively seeks input from as broad a population as possible, or would we prefer a narrowly targeted discourse that is intended, through its choice of media and venues, to preserve the status quo?

If we choose to limit our communications and data collection to serve incumbent interests, then we must admit that Boulder has become a fundamentally conservative place. The choice to collect or avoid data or is often political. When congressional Republicans vote to de-fund NASA’s work documenting climate change, or block the use of statistical sampling in the census, they are advocating an Orwellian world in which Ignorance is Strength.

Boulder should be better than that, and so I favor proactive engagement, as I believe much of City Council does. They need our support to make the right choice: to stand behind Ms. Boone and build upon her valuable work in Boulder going forward. We should live stream and archive any city meeting taking place in Council chambers on a well used platform like YouTube. We should subtitle the archived versions in Spanish. We should expect our elected and appointed policymakers and city staff to participate competently in social media, and use it as the incredibly cost-effective and democratically empowering platform that it has become worldwide. It’s been a long time since the Internet was the exclusive domain of a technological elite — today it is the people’s platform, much more so than Wayne’s World style public access cable TV, or even our beloved Daily Camera. Newer digital platforms that are accessible to parents with young children and full time jobs need to be weighed heavily in our policy discussions, right alongside inconvenient, time-consuming public meetings.

Given last week’s firestorm of activity in support of Boone on Twitter I suspect that going forward, Boulder politicians and policymakers will ignore the digital realm at their peril.  Just because you do not take an interest in social media, does not mean that social media will not take an interest in you.

Links for the week of June 4th, 2010

If you want to follow my shared links in real time instead of as a weekly digest, head over to Delicious. You can search them there easily too.
Continue reading Links for the week of June 4th, 2010

Shared Links for Apr 3rd

  • Stealing Commodities – Our infrastructure is (unwittingly) built around the assumption that the materials it is composed of are, and will remain, cheap, and not worth the trouble of stealing. If this assumption breaks down, copper power lines start disappearing from the desert, and iron manhole covers begin to vanish in the night. Problematically, the raw materials (even when valuable) are still only a small fraction of the value of the infrastructure, meaning replacement costs are high. If commodities were to remain "expensive" in the long run (i.e. worth stealing), how would we re-design our infrastructure systems? (tagged: sustainability economics security infrastructure commodities )
  • Dyson as Sociologist? Death Trains, Values, & Climate Action – Not sure I know quite what to make of Nisbet's take on Dyson. I agree that the catastrophe narrative is dangerous, and much prefer Richard Alley's precautionary point of view, but I really think Dyson is catastrophically wrong on this, and potentially dangerous as a figurehead, whether knowing or unknowing. (tagged: climate science policy propaganda politics )
  • Argentine economics and maker culture – An interesting and personal look at mass production vs. local/handmade goods based on currency strength and protectionist trade barriers. Where labor is cheap, the food and goods are often unique. Where it's expensive, you get mass production. Makes me want to bike S. America. Again. (tagged: economics argentina local money food )
  • China Out to Dominate in Electric Cars (and Why Not GM) – A short chronicle of GM's missteps toward electric vehicles, and China's long view of the same. Honestly, I don't care much who does the dominating, so long as somebody gets this market going. (tagged: cars transportation technology economics china )
  • Oregon’s mileage tax experiment – If you can imagine an America in which vehicle fuel economy increases with time (despite the fact that our national fleet today gets the same mileage as a Ford Model T), then eventually, funding road maintenance with a gas tax becomes a problem. Instead of taxing the fuel, you need to directly tax the road usage – miles driven, normalized by some kind of wear-and-tear factor for a given vehicle. Thus, the idea of a VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax. Political suicide, you say, but it worked in this (politically insulated) trial in Oregon, and is going ahead gangbusters in the Netherlands and other nations, coupled with GPS enabled congestion charging, and time/location dependent parking fees, it could go a long way toward making personal transportation costs transparent and efficiently priced. (tagged: transportation privacy taxes vmt cars oregon policy )