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Peer Power, Crowd Sourcing, and Fixing Cities

New Orleans   The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board broke up about 10-feet of the sidewalk in front of my house to do something with their pipes six months ago.  Three months ago a truck with two of their workers parked in front of the house and looked at it without getting out of the pickup.  I asked if there was a plan or a timetable to comeback and finish the job by repairing the sidewalk.  Oh, yes, they replied.  We’re making sure it’s on the list now!  Living in the broke-ass City of New Orleans, I’m pretty relaxed about the sidewalk.  I only really remember the problem every time I mow the yard and the pebbles come firing back at my legs.  If I could choose, I would have some of the potholes that almost swallow my truck fixed elsewhere, but of course that’s a different city entity with different funding sources….

In the spirit of neo-liberalism, transferring the responsibilities for common issues to regular citizens rather than public authorities, I constantly read of these magical solutions brought to us by either the internet or….each other?  Some of it sounds great and in fact would be a real contribution.  We were big fans of what crowd sourcing might do in the Korogochu slum in Nairobi if we could have figured out a way to get text messages on cell phones to alert people about crime and security issues in the community and pressure police for action.  The lack of confidence in the police acting and technical problems stalled that notion, though it still seemed promising.

Reading the Wall Street Journal recently, an op-ed book promotion by Steven Johnson touted “peer power.”  He told of an organization in New Haven, Connecticut called SeeClickFix, where “ordinary citizens” have reported “potholes, abandoned cars, graffiti.”  He claimed that “city governments have used the data to address more than 125,000 cases in neighborhoods across the U.S.”  Interesting, but is reporting really the problem or is the real problem the actual fixing?  Having worked in organizing communities for decades, I’m really pretty sure it’s the fixing part of the equation where we stumble.  Cities may prefer getting a message via the internet rather than a screaming rant from an unhappy taxpayer or worse a group of neighbors showing up at City Hall or Public Works, but all of this ignores the real problem by promoting something that is nowhere near a solution.

Even better or worse, Johnson celebrated something called “neighbor.ly” which had created a classic neo-liberal “solution” and created a “Kickstarter-style platform where people can propose and crowdfund new projects in their communities:  bike racks, community gardens, playground swings.”  Well, at least they weren’t funding basic city services on a voluntary basis, but neither are these kinds of initiatives creating public consensus on quality of life issues.  Instead they are creating a facility for self-funding separate projects not based on community decision making but on self-certified and resourced groups.  Tending a community garden may be one thing, but why aren’t bike racks and playground swings pure-and-simple public goods and therefore public responsibilities?

Where Johnson was right was in promoting “participatory budgeting” based on the Porto Alegre, Brazil model, but that’s a whole different situation where a municipal budget is cobbled together in a city over a million people with an elaborate – and equitable – system of full citizen participation to make decisions about how to spend their public dollars in the best way.  Not surprisingly the access to potable water and building adequate sewer systems increased dramatically once the ruling municipal party, the PT or Workers’ Party, instituted this process.

Porto Alegre is a model for real citizen empowerment, not the replacement of public functions by private citizens.  We need to not be confused.  Apples are not oranges anywhere in the world, and the right and the neo-liberal advocates should not be allowed to hide their efforts to push public responsibilities onto private citizens by conflating real power with an artificial substitute.