Civic engagement doesn’t happen by default. Technology can help government leaders reach community members.
At the most recent convening of the National Association of Counties at the Harvard Kennedy School, county executives heard Professor Mark Moore share his theory of public value. Moore quoted political philosopher John Dewey, who wrote that “the fundamental problem of public leadership is calling into existence a public that can understand and act on its own interests."
Democratic governance, in other words, does not furnish an engaged public by default: It is the charge of government leaders to call it into existence. The leadership of the New York City Police Department has taken this lesson to heart, leveraging technology to augment the constructive potential of the public voice.
In 1994, Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani brought the department CompStat, a then-revolutionary accountability system for policing that has since been replicated across the country.
CompStat is a management system that combines administrative philosophy with technological tools to make crime and disorder matters more transparent, and hold precinct commanders directly responsible for the areas they serve.
Crime rates are just one measure of success for a modern police department. Recent surveys of New Yorkers indicate a highly uneven distribution of civilian satisfaction with the police, despite reduction in violent crime citywide. “Ten percent of the public may be the victim of violent crime,” Bratton has said, “but 100 percent notice disorder.”
Zachary Tumin, NYPD deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives, said the department realized it needed reform. “The road to safety must go through community and the workforce,” he said, “not over or around them.”
The job of the police is not just to be good at fighting crime; it is, in the spirit of Dewey, to call into existence a public that can better act on its own interests. A full two decades after the introduction of CompStat, the NYPD identified IdeaScale, a cloud-based innovation ideation platform, as a tool that could help.
IdeaScale — which counts among its other customers NBC, Yale University and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — works by registering users to make comments and vote on suggestions for ways to improve their organizations. The ideas that receive the most votes are elevated to the attention of management.
The NYPD, whose work with the platform is uniquely public facing, has implemented the program fully in six regions. “Our work with IdeaScale is the first time that a police department has used a digital platform to invite specific communities to nominate quality-of-life problems for the police to address,” Tumin said. “Crowdsourcing helps set the police agenda for action as never before.”
The program, which is part of the city’s broader efforts to amplify citizen engagement in new neighborhood policing models, creates action items for the everyday issues people actually care about. In the 100th Precinct, for instance, community members used IdeaScale to voice concern over late-night noise coming from a local bar. The police, in this instance, enabled the community to act in its own interest by coordinating a meeting between concerned constituents and the bar owner, who together reached a mutually acceptable agreement on their own terms.
The information and ideas submitted to IdeaScale constitute a crucial supplement to violent crime and 911 data in determining an agenda for a local police force, whose success in New York is now measured more holistically through an invigorated version of CompStat. Tumin said that by being more responsive to such quality-of-life issues, the police are able to enact a virtuous cycle. By building confidence that they will get things done, police increase the willingness of citizens to report crime, testify in court and contribute street-level intelligence. This participation, in turn, helps the police do their jobs better. And so on.
New tech services like IdeaScale have demonstrated their capacity to create new “publics” in which citizens are not only heard, but also empowered to participate in the production of their own civil society. Having called publics into existence, it remains to leaders to help them flourish.
Craig Campbell, a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, contributed to this column.