Ash Center: Reinventing Public Participation for the 21st Century

April 2, 2012
Ash Center: Reinventing Public Participation for the 21st Century
Inessa Lurye, HKS MPP 2012

By Inessa Lurye, HKS MPP 2012

Many believe that the key to urban change lies in the collective power of ordinary individuals. For example, when New Yorkers were asked who has the most potential to help improve the city’s environment, two responses tied for first place—local government and ordinary residents. But what does a 21st century model for a citizen and government partnership for grassroots community change look like? How does the government capitalize on the ideas, creative energies, and capabilities of the public in a way that helps to improve people’s lives?

This summer, working for the former NYC Deputy Mayor of Operations, Stephen Goldsmith, I helped to launch a new civic engagement platform called Change by Us NYC (nyc.changeby.us). This project brings together social networking technologies, cross sector resource, and NYC government’s expertise and convening power with the ultimate vision of reinventing public participation for the 21st Century.

Change By Us NYC
Change by Us NYC (CBU NYC) asks individuals important questions facing the city. The first question is at the core of how citizens engage with their communities and the focus of New York’s long-term sustainability plan—PlaNYC. The Administration asks: “Hey NYC! How can we make our city a greener, greater place to live?”

Citizens can contribute ideas, start or join projects, apply for mini-grants, raise funds, link with and leverage the unique skills of other residents, and connect with relevant city and nonprofit resources to implement projects. The site’s algorithms suggest projects and resources linked to one’s geographic location and area of interest. The site’s moderators provide a personal touch in connecting projects with helpful resources and ideas.

My Role in Launching Change By Us NYC
As an Ash Fellow, I worked on multiple aspects of CBU NYC, including developing much of the CBU mini-grant program, conducting and coordinating multiple outreach and marketing activities, setting and monitoring site metrics, and strategic planning.

Change by Us NYC’s mini-grant funds allow selected volunteer-led projects to get off the ground, and show NYC government’s dedication to the project. In building out the mini-grant program, I interviewed a dozen NYC environmental and agency specialists. Based on these interviews, I selected the three mini-grant focus areas (composting, tree and parks stewardship, and gardening and urban agriculture), created the mini-grant application, set mini-grant performance metrics, and supported grant publicity.

Moreover, the launch of this new social platform required a complex, creative marketing and outreach process. This process involved almost two-dozen different individuals from multiple sectors. To manage and focus the workflow, I created a 130-item workplan. I then coordinated or executed many aspects of CBU NYC’s pre-launch, launch, and post-launch activities included in this plan.

For example, to build greater awareness of the site, I helped to execute free and targeted CBU advertisement placements. I facilitated the inclusion of CBU information on all electronic and hard copy water bills in NYC. Moreover, I managed several college interns who identified regional and/or green groups and blogs. I subsequently engaged these groups and many wrote about CBU to their constituents.

Then, I designed and coordinated all aspects of a community-based launch event for Change by Us NYC. The event included a formal speaking program and a creative program. For example, attendees placed large post-its with their ideas for a “greater, greener NYC” on specialty banners as they entered the event. The CBU launch was attended by 150 people and covered widely by the press, including NY 1, New York Times City Room, New York Times Green, and the Wall Street Journal.

Post the program’s launch, I implemented an outreach strategy focused on greenmarkets throughout NYC (greenmarkets attract the project’s target demographic). I developed and oversaw the outreach efforts, during which CBU volunteers engaged and informed hundreds of community members at 16 greenmarkets.

Next, to better understand CBU site performance, track project goals, and respond to operational and quality issues, I developed multiple site metrics, including operational and performance metrics. I monitored and reported basic weekly metrics.

To support further program development, I created a plan of creative and community based marketing ideas for the next phase of Change by Us NYC; crafted a position description for a new program manager; and outlined ideas for the program’s future strategic direction.

Personal Reflections
Throughout the creation, launch, and post-launch of CBU NYC, I observed two simultaneous trends: (1) community changes and (2) changes within NYC government.

First, CBU is beginning to change the way some individuals and groups engaged with NYC government and each other. Pockets of community collaboration, intergenerational volunteerism, and skills leveraging are emerging. Individuals see how the government can reduce red tape, not just create it. Residents see how they can contribute to their neighborhoods. One and a half months post launch, there are over 230 projects and 2,500 ideas on the site.

Even more surprisingly for me, however, Change by Us NYC is beginning to slowly change how NYC government works. Launching and maintaining an entrepreneurial social media site cannot occur through the pre-established and bureaucratic processes of governance. Quick and responsive decisions are needed. New, artistic, and cutting-edge collaborators require different modes of engagement. An open site, limits how much the city can control the message. Fortuitously, CBU is forcing the city to adapt to these realities and act more nimbly and entrepreneurially.

I am thankful for the opportunity to have contributed to an effort that is beginning to change both public participation and governance in the 21st Century.

Inessa Lurye, HKS MPP 2012, was a Ash Summer Fellow in Innovation