Monday, November 18, 2013

Civinomics: Elevating the Level of Public Discourse

A three day “Civinomicon” hosted by Santa Cruz tech startup Civinomics at the Cruzio complex this weekend may have provided a blueprint for the way out of the gridlock, unchecked rhetoric and hyper partisanship that has become the norm in contemporary American politics.

Utilizing the Civinomics online platform as a the tool, over 100 local citizens of various ages, backgrounds and political involvement came together for a sort of “hackathon” that included brainstorming sessions interspersed with addresses by elected officials and resulted in the sharing of 100’s of ideas and over a dozen specific initiatives that are now available for the larger community to react to and weigh in on online. (The site is organized around "workshops" and a special SLV workshop is available here: )

By focusing on solutions rather than roadblocks, participants self selected themselves into specific areas of interest like economic development, education, public safety, transportation and more.  Each group had a facilitator chosen for their professional expertise who helped frame the discussion by presenting current and historical data.  Participants were also armed with demographic data provided by the organizers.

Very quickly the ideas began to flow.  Instead of a debate over the pros and cons of a specific suggestion however what most often occurred was that participants offered examples of similar ideas implemented elsewhere or locally or someone pointed to existing programs or resources that could be tapped to facilitate or advance the proposition.  Other times an idea was offered that sparked not only immediate consensus but generated enough excitement that it quickly morphed and evolved in such a way that inspired some in the group to work toward preparing a more comprehensive proposal with a detailed implementation steps, financial impacts and costs as well as supporting data and arguments.

Citizens can express their opinion on all of the ideas and initiatives at the Civinomics web site or simply vote yea or nay as they see fit.

As product demos go this had to be considered a huge success. Even greater though was the demonstration of how otherwise disengaged citizens can affect public policy.  County Treasurer Fred Keeley,  County Supervisor Zach Friend and SC Mayor Hillary Bryant each addressed the dysfunction of the current system of public participation where the predominant input they receive from citizens, in public meetings and via email, is negative, sometimes in the extreme and that it comes from a relatively small group of the same people.  Each also made note of the fact that they were looking out at an audience that they don’t see much at public meetings.  

Keeley pointed out how cable news and talk radio provided a validation to partisans of the value of their positions making it less likely and less possible for them to see any value in the opinions of the other side.  He said “politics is the art of the possible” and little is possible without a willingness to compromise.  Zach Friend spoke about his less than one year experience as an elected official being dominated by dealing with “the urgent” as opposed to the important.  The urgent, he said, was often the pothole on “your street”.  He said 80% of his email is negative.  Mayor Bryant, after being introduced as “the most liked” politician in town said a sampling of her email would prove otherwise and that she receives constant criticism on a host of issues including the way she wears her hair.

The Civinomics platform could go a long way in elevating the public discourse if, and it’s a big if, people choose to participate. Check out the ideas and initiatives generated or share some of your ideas at Civinomics

Read more about Civinomicon:

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