Bottoms-up 2I’m reading James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds and thinking about how his thesis applies to Community Boards. He posits that the best decisions are made when four criteria are met:

  • Diversity of opinion – with each person contributing their private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  • Independence of opinions – freedom from the influence of others in expressing or acting on one’s opinion.
  • Decentralization to draw on knowledge from a broad geography.
  • An effective mechanism for aggregating likes and dislikes.

If these criteria are working, Surowiecki says you get the wisdom of the crowd. I’m only finishing the book but he seems to be making a good argument. So I’d like to take a shot at interpreting and applying these criteria to local decision making and Community Boards, offering a few preliminary suggestions on changes that might incorporate more wisdom.

  • Diversity — First, note that this is not the typical diversity of age, income, gender, etc., but a diversity of opinions. It refers to a process that allows every conceivable opinion to be expressed about pending decisions. There’s little of this form of diversity in Community Board decisions. The outreach process is irregular and quite opaque and, understaffed as they are, there’s no hope of doing traditional engagement on the many issues upon which the community has a right and obligation to comment. Even at Board meetings, there’s always the clock to contend with.

One possible solution might be to bring in more opinions with simple tools like websites, blogs, and wikis for members and the public. (Training should be provided to board members and the community, as needed.) We need every idea and view if the best decisions are to be made. And after all, the wisdom of crowds (aka democracy) is the foundation upon which our city governance is predicated.

  • Independence — I attended a Community Board 2 Queens meeting in June of 2007 to solicit their support for the Campaign’s agenda. After making my pitch, someone asked what Borough President Marshall thought of the Campaign. I answered that she’d not yet expressed an opinion. After a brief conversation the Board decided that it would not act until they learned the BP’s opinion. This showed a lack of member confidence in the worth of their opinions and a poor understanding of the Board’s role in the governance process, with “bottom up” understood as applying to drinking contests. Independence is also diminished by the voting process. Boards vote by open voice call – there’s no secret ballot. It’s my understanding that the Boards are considered to be doing city business and votes must be public to assure honesty. And if one looks at City Hall, Albany, or Washington, one would certainly not argue for secret ballots by these representatives. But there’s a difference between elected representative and Board members – Community Board members are chosen by the Borough President and local council members to be “representative of” their community, not “representatives to” the community board. The vote recording process also detracts from independence, with member names called out in alphabetical order for voice vote. I recall on Community Board 3 (where I was a member for 14 years) the Board’s secretary would begin calling the vote alphabetically, starting with (the late great) John Azzali, then Patrick Beckles… and if the vote was landsliding (as it often does), and this member held a differing opinion, he would begin to ask himself as the recording passed the e, f, g, and h members, if this was an important issue which required he vote independently, or could he just go along, saving his dissent for more important issues. A total lack of independence in a Surowieckian sense.

Methods for promoting member independence have been discussed by the Campaign’s executive committee with term limits and longer terms (e.g., allowing 2 6-year terms) one possibility proffered for removing political influence. Voting independence is a somewhat different matter, with fellow board member influence being the detriment. This influence (which is not uniformly bad and will require a separate post) can be removed by allowing secret ballots or simultaneous private balloting – made public later – to stop the cascade influence.

  • Decentralization — Here the idea is to get views from a broad swath of those affected by the issue, to draw on local knowledge from as broad a geography as possible. By statute Boards membership is limited to those within the boundary of the community district (with the rare exception of businesses or institutions with an “interest” in the area) . From this arises the NIMBY problem of community-based views often presenting too narrow an opinion base.

      Perhaps we might improve this situation by assuring that all “areas” are included on the board. And by “areas” I mean the traditional “diversity” – income levels, housing ownership, occupation, age, neighborhood, etc. The Campaign has called for this but not yet offered a tested mechanism for its implementation. As for a possible remedy, I’ll go again for new media – providing online input (wiki, blog, youtubes…) that is formally incorporated into the board’s decision-making process. This might be accomplished by requiring a reporting of non-board member opinions early in the deliberation process on vote night.

      • Aggregation — The only votes that count at Community Board meetings are those of the 50 appointed members. Perhaps we might enhance the efficacy of the aggregation mechanism by using today’s media (i.e. the online tools) to gather community opinion, with results reported as follows: The Board voted 32 Yes, 12 No, 2 Abstain, 4 Absent. The public vote as recorded on the Board’s website: 56 Yes, 238 No.


      Tom Lowenhaupt

      P.S. The Commons photo courtesy of Bobcatnorth.