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Mayor Bloomberg's Ready to Listen to Us?

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Not many people expected to say the word “crowdsourcing” in Bloomberg's 10th State of the City address on Wednesday. 

The concept of crowdsourcing is that a project can trust the wisdom, actions and insights of the public to get better information and results. Wikipedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia — rather than paying a group of editors, writers and researches, it trusts the public to produce, edit and monitor content.  As the mayor noted, companies like Netflix use the reviews and responses of the masses to get you better information about the movie you are choosing. NPR’s On The Media is crowdsourcing listeners to help identify the Senator who put an anonymous hold on the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. 

It’s not surprising to hear the word employed in a public official’s speech. Far from simply being the latest fad, crowdsourcing is real, potentially quite powerful and should be thoughtfully engaged by government. What makes it surprising is hearing it in this mayor’s address, because Mayor Bloomberg is not a crowdsourcey kind of guy.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's critique of the mayor’s address cut to the core of Bloomberg’s anti-crowdsource approach to governing. “The lessons we learned from the CityTime contract, the Chancellor roll out, the snow storm, he's got to involve more people at the table to get things done,” Stringer said. While Stringer highlighted the three recent controversies for the Mayor’s often-invulnerable administration, he also hit upon a consistent characteristic of Bloomberg’s leadership: he likes to go it alone.

Some could argue that his failure to build the Westside Stadium was a result of his refusal to do the basic political work of engaging Albany leadership, which eventually killed the project with a single stroke. He didn’t learn the lesson when he pursued congestion pricing and lost by the same route. Some of his greatest successes — like the smoking ban — were pushed through with little regard to opposing voices. Other more controversial measures — increasing his time in office to three terms — were rammed through with the same approach. Whether firing members of his Educational Advisory Committee who disagreed with him, or supporting development plans that intentionally deflect community input, Mayor Bloomberg has not shown a great tolerance for listening to competing perspectives, incorporating opposing views, and he certainly has not asked the public for its opinion.

The mayor’s recent setbacks fit into this trend. Despite his claim of conducting a “public search,” it was revealed that his team did not interview other national leaders for the top education job before tapping Cathie Black, whose lack of experience led to the most vocal opposition Bloomberg had faced all last year. He certainly was not crowdsourcing that decision.

Or in the recent snowstorm, rather than listening to the public that was telling him there was a serious problem, he reported that Broadway theaters were full. Meanwhile, across the river, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark was living a crowdsourced life, personally responding, shovel-in-hand, to snow complaints received over Twitter. Across the other river — but in the Mayor’s own city — both Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander set up very simple online forms to allow their constituents to report problems with snow removal.  These two, whether they knew the term or not, were already crowdsourcing the storm.

Actually, there’s every reason to believe that Lander deeply embraces crowdsourcing based on a previous project called Stalled Development, in which he asked constituents to provide information on abandoned development projects in his district and compiled the results on a Google Map. If the mayor is serious about crowdsourcing, he already has some pioneers in the Council chambers he could ask.

There was plenty to applaud in the Mayor’s address, his emphasis on small entrepreneurs and his call for national immigration reform, in particular. There was also plenty to criticize, including his demands for sacrifices from labor without making commensurate demands of the city’s wealthy elite and his loose claims of crime reduction while statistics show an increase in violent crime. Overall, the mayor spoke positively about the importance of investing in our city, he was relatively forward-looking and he was honest about the city’s constraints. He was also unapologetic about recent setbacks (or didn't mention them at all) and completely confident in the power of the private sector despite the damage we’ve seen that sector do, nationally and locally in our more recent CityTime contractor scandal.

But what will be most interesting is whether Mayor Bloomberg takes crowdsourcing seriously. Will he listen to ideas that are not his own? After years of telling the public to get out of his way, will he be able to convince the public he wants them in the room? Or will this diverse, creative, passionate talent pool called “the people of New York” produce ideas that simply get buried under a blizzard of the mayor’s old habits?

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."