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.

Give a Fuck About Local Government

Last week, Ignite Boulder held its 25th event, with a sold out Boulder Startup Week crowd in the Boulder Theater.  Becky Boone (@boonrs), a Senior Fellow from Code for America, gave one of the talks.  Yesterday it was posted online in all its ever so slightly #NSFW glory:

Predictably, such a blunt and impassioned call to action, presented to a currently mostly unengaged Boulder constituency (about 850 of them…) has pissed some people off, and some of them want Becky’s head to roll, because she had the gall to try and get some folks to give a fuck about local governance.

That, quite frankly, is bullshit.

The whole point of getting someone from Code for America involved in outreach related to the city’s housing strategy was to engage currently underrepresented constituencies in the city (as reported in the Daily Camera), yes, with a focus on using technology, but talking to our local technologists and getting them engaged seems like a good way to make sure this important work continues after the 6 month fellowship ends this summer.  We’ve got the demographics on who participates today, and the crowd at the Boulder Theater that night isn’t showing up to tell the city what they think.  Given that, this talk might even have made sense as part of Becky’s work for the city — but she didn’t do it as someone working with the city, a fact she points out right at the start of the talk.  She did this on her own time, to try and get a community she’s part of to participate in the governance of their own city.

Some members of City Council and the Old Guard politicos might not find the tone of the talk “appropriate,” but she wasn’t speaking to them.  The tone was calibrated to the audience, which by all (Twitter) accounts received it quite well.  The talk, like all Ignite talks, was extensively vetted by the event organizers, who have little interest in offending their attendees.

No Expertise Required!
No Expertise Required!

So far as I can tell, the only overtly partisan statement in the talk was when she noted that no particular expertise is actually required to participate in local governance… while a photo of Sarah Palin was displayed.  The talk was almost entirely factual in nature, with a few jokes (mostly poking fun at the audience itself) and a few questions.  It included:

  • Demographic information about who currently participates in city meetings and processes.  She noted that renters are woefully underrepresented, being about a quarter of all housing meeting attendees but making up about half of the city population.  She also pointed out that while 65% of Boulder’s population is under the age of 40… only 17% of housing meeting attendees are in that age range.
  • A brief explanation of the structure of Boulder’s city government — that we have a City Council who appoints a City Manager, rather than a directly elected “strong mayor” acting as the city’s executive authority.
  • The fact that only about 1/3 of registered voters participated in the last odd year election (which she shamed the audience over).
  • Information about how much City Council gets paid for what is essentially a full time job… a whopping $11,000 a year.  Good luck living on that in Boulder! (at least… without illegally sharing housing and eating dumpstered food… now if only we had someone on Council who did that!)
  • The factual statement that 5 of the 9 City Council members are up for re-election this fall.
  • She gave a little back-story on the successful Fairview High School Net Zero Club student campaign to get a paper/plastic bag fee implemented.
  • The factual statement that a community organization (which was not identified) is collecting signatures for some ballot measures this fall, which would “add some additional hoops.”
  • A query to the audience as to what they think of the statement “Boulder needs fewer jobs, not more housing.” which is a position that has certainly come up more than once in our recent housing and development policy discussion.
  • A call to the audience to get involved and get their friends involved, to tell Council and the rest of city government what they think about that position, and generically, other governance issues.
  • Statements highlighting the relative ease and high value of engaging in local governance, compared to larger jurisdictions.
  • A call to the audience to bring their skills and ideas to the table in support of local governance.
New Era Baby
New Era Baby

Stripped of the F-bombs, this is some pretty reasonable, wholesome stuff.  The audience didn’t seem bothered by the language, and truthfully, it was meant to rile them up.  This wasn’t an official (or even an unofficial!) city communication.  The calls Council are receiving calling for Becky to be fired are couched in terms of “appropriate” language and professionalism, but those norms vary widely between different populations in the city.  It’s also worth noting that New Era Colorado has in the past made extensive use of the slogan “Vote F*ucker” in their attempts to get young voters to turn out… e.g. in support of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility.

vote-fucker
Strong language… apparently warranted for the Muni campaign!

Response to the Ignite talk online, amongst the constituency it was designed to reach, has so far as I can tell, been overwhelmingly positive, if you go look through the mentions of @igniteboulder and #igniteboulder @boonrs on Twitter.  In fact, it might just end up getting some more young folks engaged in city governance. That’s the real reason people are calling for Becky’s head. They know that broader engagement by young people, renters, and the tech community will result in the erosion of their political power.

Becky Boone is doing a way the fuck better than average job of getting young people engaged with the city. Certainly a better job than a communications department that won’t let staff use social media as the spontaneous, interactive tool it’s got to be if you want it to be effective (all while forcing employees to wear ties. In Boulder. As if that adds credibility.  Personally I get suspicious whenever I see a tie…).

If City Council and the City Manager’s office give in to the totally inappropriate, unreasonable demand to fire someone who is actually doing a good job of getting unengaged people to participate, it would be a brazenly partisan act, an act in favor of Boulder’s incredibly conservative status quo, and in direct opposition to the goal of creating a more broadly representative civic sphere in the city.  It would also be in direct conflict with the stated goals of getting a Code for America fellow involved in the first place.

Free Speech*
Free Speech*

Additionally, this type of speech — by a citizen, on their own time, related to a matter of obvious public concern — is the most strongly protected speech in the US.  Any disciplinary action related to this talk would raise grave issues related to freedom of speech, and might warrant involvement by the ACLU or other organizations interested in protecting the rights of citizens to freely express views related to issues of governance.

I trust that City Council and the City Manager will stand by this citizen, who has been working hard to make Boulder’s democracy less worthy of the curses I’m sure I and many others will end up hurling at it between now and November.

Okay, actually just kidding.  I don’t trust them.  Which is why you need to support this kind of outreach, and call bullshit on the people who want to shut it down:

Email: council@bouldercolorado.gov, and copy the City Manager, Jane Brautigam: brautigamj@bouldercolorado.gov.

Tweet it from the fucking rooftops, using #BoulderCouncil and mentioning council members who are part of ye olde Twitterverse: @MaconCowles @JonesZan @Shoemaker4City @sampweaver @tim_plass @LisaMorzel

Post a link to this blog on your goddamned Facebook, and express your dismay by mentioning the City’s Facebook.

Don’t make it easy to ignore you, or they sure as hell will.

Links for the week of November 20th, 2009

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Continue reading Links for the week of November 20th, 2009

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Shared Links for Jun 16th

Shared Links for Apr 30th

  • Transparency means nothing without justice – Government transparency is necessary, but not sufficient. If police violence is recorded and publicized, and nobody cares, it doesn't matter. This is in come sense emblematic of the coup in western propaganda. You don't need to control the media as the Soviets did or the Chinese do, if your population is comfortable enough not to care what's happening out there to someone else, and if their voting patterns are firmly tied to other issues (especially social issues like abortion), the idea of a democratic revolt becomes fairly abstract. I think this where a lot of the government's fear of economic recessions comes from. When people are out of work, or even hungry, suddenly they become a lot more excitable. (tagged: transparency law police politics technology internet )
  • Condensing steam without water – Concentrating solar thermal power stations are ultimately designed to run a steam turbine, just like a gas-fired power plant. That means they need water (to turn into steam). Problematically, most such plants use water as a condensing coolant (70% of Caltech's water usage is as coolant for our 14MW worth of gas-fired power)… which is going to be hard to come by in the desert, where CSP will be built. Thankfully, there's a way to recondense steam without using a water coolant – but it does require a huge cooling tower. Not so great in Pasadena, but probably fine in the Mojave, next to acres and acres of mirrors. (tagged: solar energy technology sustainability green electricity water )
  • Rousing a Latent Defense Mechanism to Fight HIV – It turns out there is a gene in humans that produces a protein which inhibits infection by HIV, but it has a mutation – a premature stop codon – which prevents it from being effectively synthesized. This mutation doesn't exist in most Old World monkeys (and that's apparently why they can't get HIV). Undoing the mutation allows the protein to be synthesized, and grants HIV immunity to human cells. I imagine that undoing bad mutations like this, and our inability to synthesize vitamin C, might be the first place we see human germ-line engineering outside of disease avoidance (preventing e.g. cystic fibrosis). Really, these mutations are hard to distinguish from genetic diseases – they're just diseases that we, as a species, have learned to live with. (tagged: genetic engineering hiv aids biology science research plos medicine )
  • Anna in the Middle East – Anna Baltzer is a Jewish American who got a Fulbright fellowship to live in the West Bank in 2005, and document the experiences of Palestinians. She's been giving presentations about it ever since. Some parts of her presentation are available via YouTube too. From the 15 minutes I watched she seemed like a level headed critic. She's speaking in Boulder and Denver in May. (tagged: israel palestine politics fulbright peace war )
  • Twitter + Stimulus = Humans are Gullible – A wonderful demonstration of the power of the confirmatory bias. Twitter is the perfect platform for the injection of random falsehoods. Too short for citations. Instantaneous distribution. Make sure your followers are predisposed to agree with what you say, and you can get them to believe just about anything – within that constraint. Too bad the author seems to think this only applies to conservatives. (tagged: politics twitter statistics propaganda )

Shared Links for Feb 11th – Feb 12th