Smart Participation: The Public’s Chance to be Heard on Congestion in NYC
Smart Participation is an experiment led by Cornell researchers to see how public comment processes developed at the federal level will do in local contexts.
Headlines about the tussle between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Uber have for the most part subsided, but behind the scenes, the city’s four-month traffic study on the impact of for-hire vehicle services on congestion and pollution is well underway. The study, which is being conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey, will draw on city traffic data as well as trip information provided by Uber, and will also incorporate input from a Technology Advisory Group that the city has convened. The biggest underrepresented group in the process are New York City residents, but a cross-disciplinary research team from Cornell University hopes to change that.
Building on more than five years of experience moderating federal rulemaking processes, the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI) is positioning their discussion platform Smart Participation as the public’s “official” comment section, where drivers, public transit users, alternative transit users, community groups, and regular Joes can come and weigh in on specific aspects of congestion policy that have been clearly explained in plain language.
“Our concern is for a fair process that gives the people at least as much weight as the experts and the officials,” says Joshua Brooks, an eGovernment Fellow at Cornell.
Comment sections on news sites or link-sharing sites are notoriously bad, whether for being inappropriate or unproductive or both. To make this a worthwhile enterprise, Smart Participation is staffed around the clock by Cornell Law student moderators.
“Moderators mentor or guide commenters with the purpose of turning underrepresented stakeholders’ comments into effective and persuasive comments that demand the attention of the decisionmakers,” explains Brooks.
The site quietly went live in late October. Brooks tells Civicist that they didn’t want an avalanche of comments, but more of a slow trickle. Consequently, the participation thus far is predictably low. Brooks says they plan on ramping up publicity through November, and will keep the platform live until at least December 1, the same day that the McKinsey study will conclude, although that date might be extended by a week to give more residents a chance to respond.
The comments will then be collected and synthesized into a report that the Cornell group will send to local and state politicians. Earlier this week, Brooks reached out to political figures—members of the New York State Assembly transportation committee, for example—to ask them to agree to receive and consider the report upon its release. Their names are currently embargoed but will likely be made public by the end of the month.
The Smart Participation report should be a welcome addition to the contributions of the Technology Advisory Group, an informal, drop-in, drop-out group which includes companies like Uber, Lyft, and Via, as well as representatives from Union Square Ventures, the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, and the Columbia Earth Institute, among others. Such informality unfortunately seems to come with corresponding opacity for the outside observer.
Smart Participation, in contrast, is truly open to anyone and is conducted in the open and led by an impartial group.
The target issue has been broken down into six topics:
Congestion Contributors: Private Vehicles?
Congestion Contributors: E-Hails (Uber, etc.)? Other FHVs?
Congestion Contributors: Trucks, bikes, buses, and everything else?
The Move NY Fair Plan [a plan by local groups and transit experts, whose leaders agreed to submit the plan for public comment and consider feedback generated on Smart Participation]
Money Problems. Solutions?
How to Improve Area Transportation
Each of those is then broken down into additional subtopics. There are lengthy but straightforward explanations for each subtopic, written by Cornell Law faculty and students, and at the end there are specific questions like, “Do you think congestion charges should be part of the solution to NYC congestion? Which kind would be fairest and most effective?” Links to news articles and sources are generously sprinkled throughout.
In addition to the Discussion pages, Smart Participation also includes existing testimony—transcripts from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s September hearing on the subject, for example—to help visitors make an educated contribution to the discussion.
The Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), overseen by law professor Cynthia Farina, first launched the online platform RegulationRoom in 2010, as part of a partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to seek public comment on a proposed ban of texting by commercial truck and bus drivers. They have partnered with the DOT on several occasions since then and twice with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Most of the proposals garnered thousands of visitors and hundreds of comments on the RegulationRoom site.
When RegulationRoom first launched, the official government eRulemaking site was Regulations.gov, where visitors could submit comments through electronic forms. The proposals were announced only in the official journal of the U.S. government, the Federal Register, but as CFPB Director Richard Cordray observed in 2014, “on the whole, people do not read the Federal Register.” When CeRI partnered with the DOT, they began reaching out to interested parties on Facebook and Twitter, something Farina told Nextgov in 2010 was “not something that as far as we can tell the agency would normally do.”
Brooks tells Civicist that Obama’s open government initiative was a big impetus for the project.
“Our partnership with Cornell on the e-rule-making initiative is an important step toward keeping President Obama’s promise of opening government to more effective citizen participation,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said.
CeRI receives support from Google and IBM, among others. The financial security they enjoy ensures that they can offer their services for free—as in the case of Smart Participation in New York City—and take more chances than a less-well-funded project could.
In addition to the reports generated by public comments, CeRI also produces research and publications on civic engagement and participatory processes based on their work running an e-rulemaking platform.
Transition to Local Level
Smart Participation is an experiment to see how the processes developed at the federal level will do in local contexts. It was something the CeRI team had been thinking about when the de Blasio-Uber war over congestion solutions erupted this summer, and they decided it seemed like a promising issue to tackle.
There are some crucial differences between local and federal policy-making. First of all, federal agencies have a legal obligation to consider public comments when finalizing rules, and there were processes, albeit antiquated ones, in place to do so when CeRI got involved. There is no such requirement at the local level, and so CeRI cannot partner with decision-makers in the same way they partner with federal agencies.
Joshua Brooks says that this has put the team, for the first time, in the position of being a scrappy upstart initiative, calling local politicians’ offices to see if they will agree to read and respond to their report.
Brooks described the transition to the local level as “kind of hard” and “cool and exciting.” The biggest challenge is positioning themselves as an authority, which is harder without the official partnerships they enjoy at the federal level.
Brooks wants to get the various stakeholders to agree to publicly say they will read and consider the Cornell report. When we last spoke, he said several had agreed privately to read the report but were reluctant to make a public announcement.
As for how they will judge success, that’s still mostly to be determined. Brooks says that the goal is “more, better” participation, that obviously quality is more important than quantity—hence the moderators—but that there is a certain threshold for quantity that they need to meet in order to gain necessary credibility.
Hopefully when the de Blasio-Uber conflict inevitably picks up again (which seems likely once the city’s McKinsey study is done) the conversation with be at least a little more nuanced, courtesy of “more, better” public participation.