Exercise of the Franchise

a small-d democratic day at the park

Last Thursday I went downtown to LeBauer Park, where the Greensboro Regional Realtors Association was sponsoring an event:

Greensboro has received $59 million in Federal COVID stimulus funds that the City Council will soon allocate. There are few restrictions on these funds. On Thursday we have an opportunity for residents to influence choices on where the funds go. A local citizen network has organized a public event in LeBauer Park that is open to all to generate input. The Mayor and other city leaders are expected. For attendees, this is a chance to make a contribution but also to interact in small groups with government, business, and social sector leaders. There will be free food and drink provided.

Guilford County supposedly got over a hundred million in addition to the city’s allocation.

There were tents and tables set up by various institutional groups who wanted a chunk of that money. Each one had a set of manilla envelopes taped to their tables with their asks sharpied onto the outsides. Some had printed copies of their already in-process proposals to whoever is administering the American Recovery Plan, or the Build Back Better program, or whatever. We were each given $25 million in play money to divide between these manilla envelopes. I gave $5 million each to Arts Greensboro and to UNCG’s architecture department, which had student drawings of a redesign for the section of Gate City Boulevard that runs through the edge of campus. The rest I split between all the other envelopes, excepting the police department, whose ask (as far as I could tell) was just to hire more cops.

It’s surprising how many different designs there are for the million-dollar bill floating around online. The millions we had were pink, and had a deer’s head on them, for some reason I did not inquire about. Half-millions were blue, and 100k (1 lakh) were white. I found this on Mrs. Pearlmutter’s Library/Media Place, which is a pretty great name.

My fellow social entrepreneur Lyndon Rego of Mettaconomy was doing his thing, which is facilitation of group decision-making. There were colorful index cards and blue ballpoint pens to be handed out. Then Lyndon stood at the microphone and called participants into the open lawn at the center of the circle for what the MC of the overall event kept calling “a game.”

Here a telling thing happened. There were maybe 100 people milling about, probably half of whom were institutional. The institutional types mostly hung back under their tents, as one might expect from a basic expectation of conflict of interest. Their asks were already on the table, and their proposals were for the most part already developed. They stayed put on the periphery, except for one City employee who came out when it became clear the center was not holding. About a dozen people brought cards. I was one of them.

Quickly two groups were revealed: affordable housing activists and bike-lane activists, who it was clear already knew one another. Almost all where white and of at least middle age. The majority of the random citizens I had just handed cards and pens to, many of whom were African-American, did not come forward to join in. Lyndon, who was born in India, invited from the mike in his British-accented facilitator’s voice to no avail.

That one City employee, who happened to be African-American himself, said, “Yeah, this is pretty much how it goes in real life, too,” and the small circle of activists laughed uncomfortably.

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I was standing there too, with an idea on my hot-pink index card, though I think of myself as more an entrepreneur than an activist. A hot idea, I thought, though in the ensuing rounds of ranking it scored pretty low, in part because it was new. Everybody already knows what a bike lane is, so it’s easy to vote for or against.

“My” Hot-Pink Idea

There’s an online consensus-building platform called Polis, the Greek word for city, which can also imply a body of citizens. It is designed to extend a Lyndon-like process to much larger groups, potentially the whole city or county. Two cities in Kentucky, Bowling Green and Louisville, have run small pilots involving up to a couple thousand people, case studies of which are available on the Polis website. The country of Taiwan has been using a similar process for much of the last decade on a continuous basis for several different issues, involving much larger numbers.

The beauty of Polis is that its newsfeed algorithms don’t divide by reinforcing personal preferences. They instead present the highest consensus items first for a yes/no/not-sure vote, so that those who get bored easily and quit never even reach the more anger-inducing niche opinions. It also allows people to suggest new statements and steer the conversation in new directions, avoiding the trap of special interest groups capturing the discussion by just being louder than everyone else.

My pitch was to ask the citizens of Greensboro — all of them, including the young ones who can’t vote yet — what should happen to those millions of dollars. Greensboro already has an experimental Participatory Budgeting process, where each City Council district gets $100k for hard infrastructure projects (no salaries).

It is slow, requiring a year to submit and vote on projects, and another year to actually spend that money and get them built. This is the proposed schedule for round 4 in 2022.

  • February to March: Idea Collection

  • March to July: Project Development

  • August: Project Showcase

  • September: Voting

Though to be fair, that seems a lot faster than the normal budgeting process. It involves hundreds of people, based on my limited interactions with it, which is likewise much more than just the voting members of the Council.

My overall point is this … in terms of representation small brainstorming groups good, Participatory Budgeting better, Polis best currently available. I plan on following up on this, somehow, so if e-civics interests you, stay tuned.

Speaking of civic doings inspired by ancient Greece, check out this event, happening at the end of this week on campus at UNCG.

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And from there, head on out to Crescent Rotary’s all-you-can-eat fundraiser at Summerfield Farms!

I’m not so much into shrimp, I’ll be there, schlepping kegs and such. Please spread the word. Rotary does good work around the community, and funds even more good work.