Apple is good at lots of things, but they can’t make the screen bright enough when it’s sunny outside…, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Ed Yourdon’s photostream

If you’re reading this, you probably believe that democracy would be better if it was, well, more democratic — that local government would be better if it had more input by locals. That the way to improve our city is not by hiring consultants to tell us what to do, but hiring consultants to listen to people and tell us how we can make their vision happen. CEOs for Cities is working hard on taking the consultants out of the picture and putting the people into focus by fostering direct connections between residents and city government. CEOs for Cities has produced web apps which help create a culture of civic engagement.

Acknowledging that most people aren’t willing to spend much time, if any, on participating in the public process of democracy, they first helped produce the Give a Minute project. Give a Minute literally asks city residents to spend just a minute coming up with a suggestion on an important urban issue. The first project was Give a Minute Chicago and it asks for input on what would make Chicagoans walk, bike or ride transit more often. People can respond online or by mobile phone by jotting down their thoughts on an electronic Post-it®-style note.

Did you know they have free hi-speed WiFi all over Bryant Park? This place rocks!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Ed Yourdon’s photostream

Change by Us is a new project which evolved out of Give a Minute. Change by Us NYC asks residents of New York City, “How can we make our city a greener, greater place to live?” Change by Us has the same post-a-note look, but it takes the idea a step further. From The New York Times:

City officials described the project as “a social network for grass-roots leaders.” They said their goal was to exploit the opportunities offered by social media to spur professionals, volunteers and city employees to share information about ways to improve conditions and team up for specific projects.

Change by Us NYC will help users raise money to start projects like community composting or creating a new open space. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection will use the site to identify and guide projects that could be eligible for a program that disburses millions of dollars in grants to beautify neighborhoods, reduce sewer overflow into New York Harbor and undertake other infrastructure projects, for example.

In less than a year, this new model for citizen participation has gone from asking for ideas, to creating projects and raising funds for their implementation. Perhaps when people see actual results from their engagement, they will be more prone to participate and put democracy into action. We can have a 24/7 town hall that produces results.

Tomkins Square Park, Apr 2010 – 17, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Ed Yourdon’s photostream

Also launched this year is Neighborhoodland. It’s basically the same concept — asking city residents for their thoughts and input on improving their communities. Neighborhoodland was created by Civic Center which wants to “make cities more comfortable for people.” Neighborhoodland currently serves neighborhoods in the city of New Orleans.

Finally, while the technology of crowdsourcing and mobile apps is relatively new, the issue of citizen participation goes back to the very founding of our country. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” by Sherry R. Arnstein was first published in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners (JAIP) in 1969, but it’s still instructive for today. The author looks at the levels of citizen participation to see where the power truly lies and comes up with the following “eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation.” Let’s hope that new technology makes that climb a lot easier.