Let's remake democracy in NYC

As I write on September 27, 2018 democratic institutions are crumbling in Washington, D.C. So much attention (my own included) is focused on the painful circus of federal politics. I do not have anything to add to that discussion. Instead, I’d like to share my testimony to the 2019 NYC Charter Revision Commission, which is currently considering changes to the governing document of our local democracy.

I believe in the chance to remake democracy into something more participatory, inclusive, and just, and I believe that our best chance is to do it on the local level.

To learn more about the radical potential of the charter review commission, start with this blog post from Noel Hidalgo from BetaNYC: https://beta.nyc/2018/09/19/nyc-charter-revision-commission-and-you/#Join_Town_Hall

Learn how to submit your testimony on the official website here: http://www.charter2019.nyc/, where they ask the simple question: “What is your vision for our city for the next 30 years?”

Check out my testimony below.

Will you join me in remaking democracy in NYC?

I’d like to focus my suggestions on how the 2019 commission can pick up the work on improving civic life and democracy, as identified by the 2018 commission.


First, transparency must be a guiding principle. The city charter is incomprehensible to most NYers because of its format and content. The charter’s official text is maintained through proprietary software that makes it difficult to parse or collaboratively annotate. NYC take inspiration from the city of Washington, D.C., and make our charter and metadata about changes to the charter available through open source software maintained by the city (see https://code.dccouncil.us/dc/council/code/). A member of the civic tech community has created an example project to host the NYC city charter text in a legible format (see https://nyc-charter.readthedocs.io/).


Transparency is also needed in the content of the charter. There are many conflicting, redundant, and confusing sections of the charter. To identify ways the charter can be made more legible, the civic tech community has formed a charter reading group and is using tech tools to collaboratively annotate (see http://bit.ly/peoplescharter). The commission should support and engage with this effort.


Second, listening at scale needs to be an objective of the charter revision commission, and of all civic engagement processes run by the city. The black box of submitting testimony in person or through a web form and waiting for a report should be replaced with policy co-creation strategies inspired by recent successful experiments in places like Madrid (https://decide.madrid.es/), Taiwan (http://bit.ly/2xVry0j), and many others (see also https://crowd.law). NYC should raise the bar for what we expect from civic engagement, and the charter revision process is the perfect place to do this. The commission should engage with experts in new techniques for engagement and should employ listening at scale tools like Pol.is (see http://bit.ly/NYCcharterPolis).


Thank you.