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The Revolution to Come - Jamming with the Citizens

This Article is By: Civic Strategies    On  Dec. - 01, 2005

 Local government engagement ideas from south of the border...

-- Kingston Electors

The Revolution to Come
Jamming with the Citizens

- Civic Strategies

There have been two revolutions in city government in the past decade and a half. The first was measuring results through computer-generated statistics. The second was linking these results to citizens' complaints. Now it's time for the third revolution: asking citizens for their ideas as well as their gripes.

Background: Credit a pair of New York mayors with the first two revolutions. In the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani championed a system called CompStat in managing New York's police department. CompStat was a database of crime statistics capable of generating a detailed daily portrait of wrongdoing, by precinct or block. If crime spiked in a neighborhood, department leaders knew it instantly and demanded results immediately. It took a while, but this focus on immediate results changed the culture of the NYPD and helped drive down crime. (CompStat was picked up a few years later by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and used in managing all his city's departments, with equally impressive results. O'Malley called his version CitiStat.)

The second revolution belonged to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who came to office in 2002 begging New Yorkers to call the 311 complaint line when they saw something amiss, from fresh potholes to broken streetlights. (Last year, New York's 311 system fielded an astonishing 12.5 million calls.) The 311 system pushed results-oriented management even further by tying the results to specific complaints. City officials could now measure how long it took to deal with problems from the time they were called in until they were fixed. This, in turn, allowed city hall to set goals and measure progress precisely. (Example: New York's goal is to patch all potholes in 30 days or less. Last year, 98 percent of pothole repairs met that goal, up from 70 percent in 2002.)

Laudable as they were, the first two revolutions enlisted citizens only as complainers. What about citizens as thinkers and suggestion-makers? Smart mayors have ways of asking citizens for their ideas, of course, but these efforts haven't progressed much beyond town-hall meetings and letters to city hall. Is there a way computers could help citizens offer constructive ideas and organize these suggestions? Actually, there is. It comes from IBM, and it's called a "jam."

A jam is an Internet discussion, held for several days and focused on a major topic, usually with several subtopics. Anyone can log on and contribute, and the discussions are meant to be freewheeling. (Translation: people can say anything they want, from the inane to the inspired.) In most cases, there are some experts watching over the discussions and, where appropriate, offering facts and context. Sounds like every other Internet chat room, right? But the jams' limited duration seems to focus the contributions, and IBM adds something else that's new and valuable. After the jam, it uses software to sift through the tens of thousands of ideas, suggestions and gripes to arrive at some key themes and ideas. It can invite participants or a smaller group to rate the suggestions for importance and feasibility. Those with exceptional merit then can be used for developing programs and plans.

So far, IBM has produced jams mostly for itself (50,000 IBMers participated in a corporate jam on company values in 2003) but it's not hard to see how this could be used in big cities, organizing gigantic town-hall discussions focused on specific issues. Important to emphasize: Jams aren't just elaborate suggestion boxes, they're discussions, so people can add to ideas or disagree with them. And by passing through so many perspectives, ideas change, gain strength or wither away. The result: suggestions that come with their own market tests.

Footnote: IBM is doing some test marketing of its own by helping a world urban forum produce a "habitat jam" on Dec. 1-2 [
Habitat JAM is an open forum for registered participants to share and brainstorm ideas concerning urban sustainability]. To learn more about this jam (and learn how jams work in general), click here.