Windows, and the City.
Fabrica Behring, Rio de Janeiro.
What I'm working on | What you're working on | The future.
I have spent the last few months traveling around the country to visit everyday Americans in their homes, shadow them at their jobs, and attend their houses of worship, in order to discern what motivates them to do things that are civic. (Findings to be released at the end of this year!)
In over 100 in-depth conversations with people in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, and Boston, I have asked participants the same question:
Can you tell me the last time you had an interaction with government?
This question stumps people. They often pause for a considerable think, and find themselves at a loss to come up with any examples.
For those who do, invariably, the answer returns: “does _____ count?”
Do the police count? Do parking tickets count? Does my health insurance count?
In essence, people are asking if they have correctly identified what government is. These are people who took public transportation earlier that day to get to work, or whose kids are completing third grade.
While the answers to other questions surface a variety of complicated trends about Americans’ relationship with civic duty – as one might expect from a country as colorful and many-minded as the United States – the responses to this one question are unitary. I find this astounding.
It would seem that Americans do not confidently know how to recognize our government in our daily lives. Out of the many services, experiences, exchanges, pressures, and opportunities we encounter in the course of a day, we cannot pick out the ones that stem from government authority and resources.
It is possible that this is a problem of the counterfactual – in other words, that so much of the business of government is preventing many small disasters that, when effectively averted, go unrecognized (think: ensuring food standards in your favorite takeout joint down the street).
Another possibility is that people – as much market actors as they are civic actors – see and value the consumer services or products they acquire when they pay for them, an event that happens multiple times per day (in the grocery store, at the movies, in the hair salon). We also “pay” for government services and experiences, but we do it in a lump sum, usually once per year, in a very painful experience wrought with the anxiety of “will I get a return or will I owe money?” The experience is not so much about gain of critical services for society, but rather about loss of hard-earned income. We are not regularly reminded that we have invested in a larger system.
These are merely initial hypotheses, however.
In my tenure as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society this year, I want to answer three questions:
My bias is that government is valuable - and that things we cannot see, we do not value. I literally want to make government visible, but I know I need some data about how to best pursue this goal.
My thinking right now is that a solid investigation of this topic might involve three activities:
If this project is successful, we will have collected some useful answers to this conundrum, and begun to transform the public mindset about how embedded government is within our everyday lives. I am most personally invested in the American context, but I could envision the findings being relevant for governments globally.
Now, I am issuing a Request for Collaborators!
Perhaps you ….
….have been mulling over the same observation and want to discuss it;
… lead an organization with an institutional interest in supporting this kind of applied research and problem-solving;
… are a master storyteller looking to help unpack and explain this phenomenon; or
… are an everyday American who wants to let me shadow your daily experiences.
If so, please contact me as follows — and thanks!
email@example.com || @katekrontiris
Since the news of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri last week, I’ve been thinking about what I personally can do to address this systemic disease of police brutality in the United States.
I used to work on innovative and award-winning problem-solving justice projects in New York City, many of which brought me into collaboration with committed and fair public safety officers. I know that not all police officers act as if they are above the law, and I also know that it takes a certain sacrifice to work in service of public safety every single day.
However, police excessive use of force is an institutionalized problem across this country, not only in the most horrific cases of death, but also in the everyday profiling of (mostly) men of color in stores, in their cars, and on the streets.
I have also been reading about who holds elected power in Ferguson (mostly white, in a city where the overwhelming majority identify as African American), and one particularly dark piece about a similar state of affairs in Alabama, and I have found myself more depressed and unhopeful than I have been in a long time. I am generally optimistic about the potential of American democracy to be continuously perfected in service of the greater good, but these articles really highlight how our electoral systems and legislative process are being manipulated for pure evil as well. I feel particularly sad and frightened to think about what Alabama’s recent experience of pre-Civil Rights era black political power portends for the rest of the nation.
Better informed on this state of affairs, I have thought very hard about what different kinds of action I could take. Even in multiple discussions with family and friends, nothing we came up with seemed like it would have a meaningful impact on the problem, which fundamentally is about the distribution of power and privilege.
But then, this afternoon, my good friend and Executive Director of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, Kevin Nadal, challenged me. No, not to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (which has raised a record $42 million over the past week).
He challenged me to the #KnowYourPrivilegeChallenge. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it just started today!
In it, Kevin names three privileges that he has in his life, and then he names three organizations that address that privilege, to which he has made a donation.
What I loved about Kevin’s #KnowYourPrivilegeChallenge video is that it opened up a frame for positive action (addressing and acting on your privilege), and a systematic way of addressing it (three donations, a “multi-pronged approach”).
As a white American woman from an upper middle class background with lots of fancy education, I have a many, many privileges to be grateful for. And I am.
In these days of Ferguson, in order to harness my privileges in service of a world that I aspire to live in, I’ve made donations to three organizations that are working systemically to change the status quo.
PowerPAC+, so that more people of color and women have political power and that social justice champions are elected to positions of elected authority in the places that need it most.
YWCA of NYC, so that young girls of all backgrounds have access to the kind of positive development opportunities that I had as a kid.
Bunker Hill Community College, so that all people, regardless of income or nationality, have access to the kind of education that allows us to become our best selves.
We all have our own ways of acting, and I am privileged even to be able to make these donations (thanks for the challenge, Kevin!). It is my hope that the money will help these organizations — more expert than I in each of their own interventions — keep doing what they are doing to achieve peace and justice in this country.
But as the saying goes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Please consider yourself challenged to consider your own privileges, and invited to act in service of a more just world, in whatever way you see fit.
Reminders #57 - 10,042 why it’s time to establish my own studio space.
These pictures are of Fabrica Behring, an old chocolate factory turned art studio complex in the Santo Cristo neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Talented artist Vivian Cacurri was our host and guide through this building of secrets.
Vivian Caccuri’s work intertwines sound recordings, the public space, voice, and imagination through performances, objects and installations. Since 2008 she is dedicated to investigating listening and sound as means and form to bring together isolated spaces, communities and consciousnesses.
One of her pieces that I found most interesting is the “caminhada silenciosa" or "silent walk." Vivian curates a day of listening for a set of friends, researched through her own intrepid explorations of interesting soundscapes across the city. The day is a silent experience until dinner, when the adventurers discuss what they heard. I found this to be a profoundly interesting and mindful way of reconnecting to the present moment. Maybe I’ll try a version of it tomorrow as I walk around …
Today’s travels in Rio brought us to the Vidigal community, kindly hosted by Pedro Henrique de Cristo and Caroline Shannon de Cristo of +D Studio.
We were visiting Parque Sitie, a site that they and others in this favela have been transforming over the past few years from a dumping site to a community park, discussion forum, ecological center, and reliable staircase down the hill.
When the two moved to the favela about two years ago, they started looking for ways that they could help to improve community life. Their relationships with neighbors developed into a very far-reaching and systems-focused plan to improve infrastructure, promote community and individual land ownership, transform education, and conserve the environment.
They are among the rare few who have found a meaningful way to combine the contextual experiences and needs of their neighbors with their expertise in planning, architecture, and public policy. Very excited to see how their work evolves!
Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet may demonstrate why good process could trump final outcomes in public decision-making.
For anybody who cares about a healthy Internet or a healthy democracy, Brazil is offering some really important, live examples.
Immediately post-World Cup, that may not be the lede one would expect to read, but it is true. (As many others have pointed out, this is a country of complicated and interesting political tensions.)
I spent time last week in the country’s capital, Brasilia, learning about the recently-enacted Marco Civil da Internet from representatives in the Presidency, the Ministries of Justice and Culture, and the state telecommunications regulator (ANATEL). These discussions – and many others with stakeholders from civil society, telecommunications, and the citizenry – are part of a three-week study tour hosted by ITS Rio, whose staff shepherded the bill and thus have a unique perspective on how this law came to fruition.
The Marco Civil is civil legislation that articulates important elements of how the country will regulate privacy, freedom of expression, net neutrality, and a host of other Internet and society issues.
The substance of the law emerged from colleagues at the Center for Technology and Society of the Law School at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio who had been thinking for some time about how to respond to the country’s only (and inappropriately targeted) legislation about the Internet, which focused on cyber crime. The country’s former President Lula was also developing an interest in these issues, perhaps due to widespread pressure from Brazilian civil society, and the Ministry of Justice was asked to launch a public consultation about the issue.
In addition to a set of town hall meetings around the country, this government-civil society collaborative deployed a tool unprecedented in Brazilian lawmaking, but appropriate for the topic: an online platform for interested parties to submit their comments, suggestions, ideas, and concerns. The response from interested parties was significant, and over the course of the next few years, the country managed to pass Internet legislation that is globally viewed as a kind of gold standard.
Since I care about everyday people having greater ownership over the public decisions that affect their lives, I was curious to understand what impact this online public engagement actually had: what about the bill might have been different had the public not participated so robustly?
I asked our government discussants this question and their answer was “no question, it was totally different.” They said that debates in Congress actually shifted on multiple occasions due to the external inputs that this process channeled.
This was due in part to the high rate of participation among academics, tech elite, and civil society actors who had direct expertise in the technical and political issues under discussion, and also because the organizing team within the government accepted every invitation to debate the merits of the legislation, no matter whom their hosts.
Like any multi-year legislative process, the Marco Civil encountered challenges – not the least of which were the “Snowden revelations,” which brought the bill to the forefront as a potential response by the Brazilian government, but also threatened to pollute its contents with politically-driven provisions that would ultimately be bad for the Internet.
The final law was approved in April of this year, but many important issues still need to be clarified. Brazil’s definition of net neutrality and guidelines for which agency will oversee its implementation remain unspecified. The retention of data (for what purposes, on what grounds, and with what mechanisms) and key aspects of copyright law also need to be clarified. With elections upcoming, the country waits to see how these major, complicated legal issues will be resolved.
What strikes me most about this case is not actually what it accomplished – there is widespread acknowledgment that the Marco Civil is incomplete – but rather the process by which it was developed.
We heard time and again that this inclusive, responsive, transparent, and digital process was just as important, if not more important, than the outcomes. We also heard widespread desire to repurpose the same process on other policy issues.
It is likely because this particular set of internet and society issues is embedded with a particular set of values about openness, sharing, and collaboration, that a public governance process that was deliberately and digitally consultative emerged. My colleague Primavera De Filippi observed that this process was probably the best calibrated it could have been for the people who most care about this issue (let’s call them political tech geeks). Process matched subject, values, and participants in a very elegant and complete manner.
Skeptics might ask: if we were to debate agricultural issues, would an online platform be the best way to capture the opinions of the people who most know and care about that issue? And should we design our participatory platforms for those with the highest of stakes in the issues? I am not convinced that an online platform is necessarily the best tool for soliciting public opinion on public problems (internet penetration in Brazil is about 67 percent), nor that we should design participation mechanisms to suit the people who are most likely to engage.
However, I have come away with the opinion that our American governing context is overly attached to our issues. There are no “wins” without issue advancement (see: Congressional blockage). Here in Brazil, a “win” has been reframed in this instance to balance participatory process with issue advancement, highlighting the role of public servants as masters of good process, not simply issue advocacy.
In the United States, public trust in governance is at record lows – and I have observed through recent research that Americans are barely able to even perceive the presence and resources of government in their lives, even though they benefit from it multiple times per day. If our mechanisms for public problem-solving looked more like that of the Marco CiviI, might we more meaningfully utilize our opportunities to influence policy?
I am reminded this week that an open society should not just enforce issues such as net neutrality and open data – although those are ever more important – but should credibly use open practices for everyday people and for public officials to jointly shape legislation in the public interest. The vibrance of Brazil’s Internet is still an open question, but we can all learn from a process that was credibly participatory.
About ITS Rio
The mission of the Institute for Technology & Society (ITS) is to ensure that Brazil responds creatively and appropriately to the opportunities provided by technology in the digital age, and that the potential benefits are broadly shared across society. Through its own research and in partnership with other institutions, ITS analyzes the legal, social, economic and cultural dimensions of technology and advocates for public policies and private practices which protect privacy, freedom of expression and access to knowledge. The Institute also offers innovative education, training and capacity development to individuals and institutions to enable them to understand the promises and challenges of new technology. Last, not least, ITS aims to strengthen the voice of Brazil, Latin America and the Global South in international debates on technology and its regulation.
I am pleased to share that I’ll be participating in two new communities, learning from some friendly folks who definitely share some my interests and aims. We may not be a guild yet, but there’s always time for that …
This July, I’ll travel to Brazil to spend three weeks as Global Policy Fellow at ITS Rio. Among other accomplishments, ITS Rio is largely responsible for Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet, a piece of legislation that drove broad-scale public discussion about how the country should govern internet rights, including privacy, net neutrality, and freedom of expression. I am very much looking forward to understanding from key players themselves how this change is unfolding, what impact it has had thus far, and what results can be learned for my own country context.
Then starting in September, I will be joining the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University as a Fellow, alongside an awesome group of individuals who I hope to learn from as peers in the study of civic and public life. I anticipate working on two projects. The first is about 21st century girlhood: Who is the 21st century girl? What shapes her aspirations and sense of self-efficacy? How is technology affecting the social and economic institutions that shape her reality? The second project will explore my recent observation that Americans have a very hard time perceiving the presence, authority, and resources of government in their everyday lives. Why are we Americans so poor at identifying the presence of government in our lives? What might we do to make government’s role and function visible to its residents?
I’m grateful to both ITS Rio and the Berkman Center for offering these opportunities to build community around the work I do, and I’m looking forward to a great experience!
Last week, in Phoenix, Arizona, we witnessed the death of a public meeting.
It is a short and sad story, so I will get to the point: a meeting that began with eight members of the public dwindled to zero after about 45 minutes.
After the local planning committee committee granted a continuance to a developer (planning lingo for “you can have more time to get community residents to agree with your development plan”), the developer’s representative, an older neighborhood resident who had quarreled with him, and two other attendees left. A mother and son duo stuck around for about 10 minutes after that, holding down the “public” element of the meeting. But the planning committee was conducting a discussion among themselves without any input from the audience (and perhaps there was dinner and homework to be done still), so mom and son left. And then even our research team had to go. Down to zero and no longer “public.”
This all got us thinking: if a community meeting falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it actually happen?
But seriously, how could we re-design the local public meeting so that people come in droves to get involved in the discussion?
This is a problem everywhere in America, not just in Phoenix. Generally, but not always, these committees oversee zoning and licensing decisions, they provide neighborhood input for city-level initiatives, and serve as the collective conscience of a neighborhood or community. Some meetings are better attended than others, depending on the role and function of the entities governing the most local level of governance.
Importantly, these meetings are usually the most open and accessible interface for citizens to engage themselves in the activities of their local government. It is how we make sense of the challenges around us, and work with the people who have the authority to fix them.
With that in mind, we came up with 8 ideas that we think would at least advance the status quo of public meetings. Very curious to hear your feedback, so please send it along!
1. Public meetings should be explanatory as a design principle.
When we arrived for the Phoenix meeting, we were greeted with some crackers and cheese (welcome after a long day of interviews!) but absolutely no information about the topics of discussion, what issues had previously been covered, and how the committee works. For most public meetings, you can find an agenda online, and on paper at the meeting. That is helpful, but absent any context, it can be hard for a newcomer to understand what is under discussion and why it matters. Public meetings should be designed to be understandable to new participants, but not burdensome to old timers, involving a constant re-description of topics and process in a seamless and customizable way.
2. Make the room layout inclusive, easy to maneuver in, and welcoming.
This may seem strange or small, but it sends a strong message about the value of public participation when the local committee members sit with their back to the public, or participants are forced to squeeze into a few chairs at the back of a long room. Think: summer block party, not VIP-only country club.
3. Focus meeting content on what is best accomplished in a public setting.
There are local laws about what is and is not allowed for discussion in public meetings, but with any available flexibility, local officials should consider what is both necessary and the best thing that meeting could accomplish … and then talk about that! Often these meetings suffer from an itemized list of marginalia and lack conversations that ignite purpose and future-thinking in an exciting way. This point is related to a bigger philosophical question: what really does the democratic process require of these public meetings? Is it true that the topics we are discussing actually advance democracy or should we be talking about something else? We should also figure that out. OK, separate post.
4. Train all community meeting chairs in facilitation techniques.
The tone of a public meeting is often set by the person moderating it. These individuals need to know how to listen and synthesize, keep the conversation moving, make everybody feel included and challenged, drive toward for meaningful (not procedural) interactions, and shepherd decision-making. We have noticed that both local officials and members of the public come to the meeting expecting there to be tension, and then act acrimoniously based on those expectations. Good facilitators also help people resolve conflict and see commonalities. Facilitation is not simply about playing traffic cop; at its best, it can be a tool for creating breakthrough spaces for deliberation.
5. Host a singles mixer at the end of the community meeting!
Just kidding … kinda. People are always looking for meaningful connections with others and opportunities to have fun. Why can’t public meetings offer a place for local residents to get to know each other in social ways (and get up-to-speed on local issues in their neighborhood at the same time)? Some people we speak with say that they often do not go to a meeting because they are intimidated and want a buddy. Other people say that they go to meetings to meet people in person with whom they might not otherwise come in contact (a local elected official, a developer, a new restaurant owner, etc). Designing meetings with a central purpose of connecting attendees to each other would add a new incentive for attendance and hopefully keep participants coming back for more.
[Side note: I’ve been dreaming for a little while now about a scenario in which the Improv Everywhere comedy troupe sends a horde of very well-informed local resident volunteers to participate vociferously in their community meetings monthly. Sort of like this Surprise Wedding Reception, but for a public meeting!]
6. Form useful partnerships with neighborhood-focused digital platforms.
Groups like Nextdoor, Everyblock, CB Tools and others are quickly emerging to power social and problem-solving networks for neighbors. In some cities, local governments have a presence on these sites (the Phoenix Police Department has joined Nextdoor, for example), but often they do not. These tools are simple and effective ways to share information about problems, offer congratulations for an awesome park cleanup or a lovely new coat of paint on a house, or just report strange smells (that is a real thread in my Nextdoor neighborhood). Lots of nerds have come up with tools that can also help improve the meeting processes themselves, and based on my attendance at my local city council meetings, I know that there are still opportunities for usage to spread!
7. Market the meeting like your business depends on it.
Most cities cover the basic requirement: posting public notice of a meeting in size 6 light gray font in a sidebar buried on a dusty webpage somewhere. If we were trying to get our customers to buy our services, is that how we would entice them? The field of information design exists to help us figure out how to communicate important information to key audiences in meaningful ways. One idea would be to host a local challenge to encourage portfolio-building design students to submit their best ideas for eye-catching posters, flyers, or other physical and digital materials to help spread the word.
8. Do not hold meetings at 7am or 3pm. (This happens in Phoenix, and probably elsewhere.)
The public likes to both sleep and work, usually. Thus, if your meetings are during sleep times or work times, they probably will not come.
I’m sure there are 103 other great ideas for how to improve public meetings. Share them all in this open Google doc and get your friends and family to contribute as well. It will be cool to see what the braintrust comes up with!