Last week I was at the Digital Cities conference in Buenos Aires, a convening of civil servants in charge of city open data programs and the technologists and NGOs that use the data. One after another government representative claimed that the ultimate goal of their initiatives was to invite more citizen participation in governance.

Really? If I were a civil servant — even the most progressive, forward-thinking civil servant — citizen participation would still be less of a goal and more of an obstacle.

I want to give four concrete examples from my own neighborhood to illustrate the detrimental effects of participation, and then I want to offer a few ideas as to how we can make civic participation more effective for the good of all, and not just for individual interests. My aim here isn’t to criticize civic participation. In fact, I’m one of its most outspoken evangelists, and further below I’ll explain why.

But we shouldn’t be naive about citizen participation; we shouldn’t treat it as an unqualified end and good. The rise of the Third Reich, the Ku Klux Klan and the Rwandan Genocide were also movements of citizen participation. (Not only that, but much of the ideology of the rise of Nazi Germany was based on scientific research that received some funding from major US philanthropic foundations.) The value of citizen participation depends entirely on the ultimate impact of the ideas that sustain it.

(Morris Fiorina has written more about the “Dark Side of Civic Engagement” while at the Brookings Institution.)

My Struggle to Participate in Condesa

I won’t lie. I live in a pretty hip part of Mexico City. As soon as I arrived I tried to become involved in various neighborhood associations, and to better understand their activities and advocacy campaigns. Time after time I discovered that, despite being lovely people, I didn’t agree with them about anything. I was conflicted. I wanted to participate in causes with my neighbors and yet I was increasingly convinced that they were blocking the neighborhood’s progress. Four examples:

  • Neighbors oppose parking meters. Urbanists around the world agree unanimously that free parking contributes to auto dependence, urban sprawl, air pollution, traffic, and is bad for local business. Yet local residents continue to protest any plans to place parking meters throughout the neighborhood, even when they would be granted permits to park their car on the street. They protest for three reasons: 1) many residents have more than one car that they leave parked on the streets and only use during the weekends, 2) many residents leave big blocks of concrete in front of their building, guaranteeing their own parking while taking it away from others, 3) most residents suspect that the money collected from parking meters will fill the pockets of politicians and not the potholes of the neighborhood.
  • Neighbors oppose density. I’ve written about this before. Books like the Triumph of the City, The Gated City, and The Rent is Too Damn High all demonstrate how local opposition to the construction of tall buildings excludes poor citizens, decreases productivity, causes urban sprawl, and contributes to global warming. It’s especially important to construct tall buildings near public transit hubs, which is exactly what has been proposed near the Chapultepec metro stop: a nine-story building with 50 new apartments. Neighbors protest tall buildings because: 1) they are concerned that new residents will put a greater burden on services like water, electricity, local schools, trash collection, and parking, 2) a greater supply of local housing is against the economic interests of homeowners who benefit from the high prices of low supply.
  • Neighbors oppose native species. Earlier this year a rumor started spreading around the neighborhood that the local government was going to cut down half the trees in our beloved Parque Mexico. Well known residents took to the streets to protest, though they couldn’t name the destination of their message. They also didn’t know that the local government wanted to remove only non-native species that consume much-needed water and harm native species.
  • Neighbors oppose walkable cities. This is the protest campaign that I most struggle to understand. Currently Michoacan street between Mazatlan and Nuevo Leon (highlighted in red below) is a zoo of double-parked cars, valet parking stands, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. For years the local government has proposed to close off the street to cars and create a pedestrian walkway to encourage residents to enjoy the neighborhood’s boutiques, cafes and restaurants. But local residents consistently oppose the plan. They even protest the installation of public bathrooms and the widening of sidewalks. Neighborhood groups say that such additions “change the culture” of the area, which is to say that public spaces encourage working class families to spend time in our upper class neighborhood.

Condesa 1

Involving Citizens from the Beginning

Indeed, I haven’t been able to find a single campaign of civic participation in my neighborhood that I support. But my neighbors aren’t the only ones to blame. The local government must also improve how they develop and communicate their proposals with local residents. If you go to the government website of my local district, which has an annual budget of around USD $170 million per year, all you’ll find is a banner saying that they are “renewing the website to improve service.”

Too often local residents catch wind of new development projects and policy proposals through rumors rather than consultation. For example, right now the two major libraries in my neighborhood are each undergoing renovations at the same time, but as far as I’m aware the local government did not carry out any consultation of what residents need and desire from their local libraries. Rather, the current model of community development is:

  • Local governments decide on new development projects based on meetings with small group of powerful actors.
  • Neighborhood groups discover plans for projects and mobilize to protest, even if the plans ultimately benefit the community.
  • Local governments measure the level of protests and either cancel, adjust or push forward with plans depending on how it may affect their political support.

An alternative model is found in projects like Yo Propongo in Mexico City and Cidade Democratica in Brazil. (Disclosure, Cidade Democratica is a grantee of Omidyar Network, my employer.)

One of the most popular — and yet most neglected — public spaces in Mexico City is Glorieta Insurgentes at the intersection of two major thoroughfares, Insurgentes and Chapultepec. In March the Mexico City government announced that it would invest more than a million dollars to improve the public plaza, but it didn’t ask residents what they wanted.

Get

Yo Propongo, a group of young university students, decided to consult Glorieta Insurgentes’ users directly. I met with the organization’s director, Alejandro Maza, a couple weeks ago to learn more about the project. Of course, they use their customized platform to solicit proposals from residents for the space, but Maza found that the most relevant suggestions came once his team spent a whole day in the glorieta, interviewing residents about how they use the space and how it could be improved. They will then deliver the results of their investigation to the city government to ensure that their plans correspond with the needs and desires of local residents.

Open Data and Common Sense

To tie this all together, governments must make more information about their activities and plans available to residents. However, we shouldn’t confuse information and knowledge. We depend on researchers and local intellectuals to explain why charging for parking and constructing tall buildings is ultimately good.

Local governments should also publish information about the performance of their public services, such as Mexico City’s forthcoming BoletaDF initiative. However, beyond publishing indicators, local governments should directly consult residents about how those services can be improved.

While I do believe that local civic participation is harmful to the development of my neighborhood, I remain a faithful supporter of the concept and practice of inclusive participation. Numerous studies (such as Doucouliagos 1995 and Rosenberg and Rosenstein 1980) have found that worker productivity increases when workers are involved in decision making processes. I believe that the same effect also applies to public policy. When residents are involved in local decision making from the beginning, they are more likely to be supportive of the ultimate proposal. If they contribute to the planning of a neighborhood park, for example, it is more likely that they will use and take care of the park once it is built. Participation also produces a sense of personal satisfaction (‘I contributed to something’) and a communal sense of shared purpose. Of course, some disagreement and conflict is inevitable, but even in cases of extreme opposition, it is best detected from the outset rather than after local governments have already invested considerable money and time.

We shouldn’t be naive about the effects of civic participation, but we should remain supportive.

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