“I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”

Let’s say you are a corrupt politician, and you’re looking to launder some public money.  Don’t fret, it’s actually not all that hard.

Every year the New York City Council debates the budget.  How much of your tax money goes to parks, how much to schools, infrastructure, they divide the budget pie.  A portion of that pie every year gets sectioned away for “discretionary funding”.  In 2012, that pie slice was 579 million dollars.  Discretionary funds are money that the City Council Member can allocate as he or she sees fit. There are two types of discretionary funds. Expense funds ($151 million) are used to pay for salaries and services. Capital funds ($428 million) are used to pay for physical infrastructure – for “brick and mortar” projects.

If you’re looking to launder some money, discretionary funding is your best bet.  The trick is to take your portion of discretionary funding and allocate it to programs and organizations that you run, behind the scenes.  You give the money to “Totally Legit Company”, which you founded – that’s legal – and which is staffed and run by your family and friends – also, technically, legal.  Once they collect their paychecks, the money is clean, and free to be given to you in a bag with a dollar bill sign on it.  Luckily you won’t have to worry all that much because once the money is allocated from the Council budget to the Councilmember, there’s no oversight process to monitor its use or effectiveness.  It’s a good faith kind of thing. New York City’s protection against discretionary funding abuse is only a few steps removed from a bank putting up a sign over its open vault that reads, “please do not steal.”

The most recent politician to be caught was Larry Seabrook who had been laundering money for decades before he finally went down.  He sent taxpayer dollars to organizations run by his girlfriend.  He funded an organization whose mission was to produce a parade, which hasn’t produced a march around the block.  There is even a record of a lunch Seabrook put on the books for $170 dollars.  The contents of the lunch?  A bagel and cream cheese.

Last year, four progressive Councilmembers took a stand against this kind of fraud.  They launched what they called an experiment dubbed “Participatory Budgeting.”  Each Councilmember set aside one million dollars of their discretionary funding for projects to be proposed by, debated by, and instituted by their constituents.  The project culminated in a vote by the constituents for the top ideas to receive funding.  Direct democracy taking place, with the use of magic markers.

Councilmember Brad Lander at a Participatory Budgeting meeting

Increased participation will keep potential thieves on their toes.  If Larry Seabrook had to pitch his shell company ideas in front of his constituents and asked them to fund the pockets of his family and friends’ bank accounts, I would imagine those not in his immediate family would have dealt with him long before the US Attorney General would have had to.

Why is it easier to spend 170 dollars on a bagel than it is for people to realize that you shouldn’t be able to spend 170 dollars on a bagel.  The lesson here is fairly simple: when someone steals from you, don’t keep giving them money.  Hopefully participatory budgeting expands, hopefully we start to realize that the money is being taken out of our pockets, hopefully we can make our City better for everyone, except of course for you: the corrupt politician.



Plotting Yourself

As I reflect on this past semester, the discussions we’ve had about data – what to do with it, who can do what, where does it come from; the discussions about technology’s place and use in today’s world – what do we understand, how complicated can we make something before nobody uses it; the discussions about how to redesign processes that have never been redesigned before, how to intervene into systems never thought to be broken, how to re-engineer the plane while we’re flying it, as @bethnoveck says. 

As I think about all of these run-on, incomplete sentences, I think back to a design practice taught to me while taking a course at ITP.  Jorge Just @jorgej and Chris Fabian @unickf taught us an exercise best used at the beginning stages of designing your idea.  Draw out a graph, just like you did in 7th grade math class, and on the X axis you chart “local” to “international.”  On the Y axis, you’re looking at “low tech” to “high tech.” 

Think of your current idea.  That idea that you know is going to change the world.  Plot it on your map.  Where does it fall? 




Feel free to use my map as your starting point.  This sketch, for those following along at home, would probably be plotted on the bottom left corner, maybe a little higher up on the Y axis since it’s a white board.  A paper and pen would be lower tech.  But it is extremely local, since it’s in my apartment (also, yes, I white boarded part of my wall, something I recommend to everyone).

How would I scale that up and move it along each axis?  A chart that’s on a computer would go higher on the tech side.  But if it’s my computer, still stay local.  However, by putting this picture on this blog, it’s now wider spread and thus less local.  So it spreads on the X axis.  If there was an app to chart things, that would move even farther in both directions. 

The point is to reimagine your idea in both directions.  What I’ve found to be true is that a good idea can move in any direction on this map.  It’s all about how you want to intervene in the world.  The design world uses the world intervention, which I personally adore because it means you’re causing a ruckus but in a good way.  Before you do, think about where on this graph you’re intervening.  Then think about what it would be like all the way to the left.  Then the right.  I promise you’ll think of new problems and eventually new solutions in your designs of programs and experiments and ideas. 

By: Asher Novek

Interview with City Councilmember Jumaane Williams regarding Participatory Budgeting

I was fortunate to sit and chat with Councilmember Jumaane Williams, of the 45th Council District, around his efforts in participatory budgeting. Initiated in NYC in 2011, participatory budgeting is a project meant to engage the community in allocating funding towards local projects, but also meant to empower the community to engage with their local City officials. Each of the Councilmembers (4 participated in 2011) allocated funding from their discretionary budget just for the PB project. The constituents held town halls, debated what the money should be used for, proposed projects, and eventually culminated in a vote for the top project ideas. The votes were held in schools, community centers; votes were tallied on poster board, with markers. Democracy in action.

What happens when people were given a power they were not used to? Did the project lead to a strengthening of the bond between constituents and their local government? Will participatory budgeting continue to grow in the coming years? And how can technology influence PB, but also civic engagement on a larger scale? These were some of the questions I spoke to CM Williams about.

Some of the points that he brought up, the “initial hesitation when people are given power” I find to be the most interesting. How can you empower people if they won’t trust the source? There is a fundamental divide between some communities and their government, and it isn’t the kind of divide that can be filled by any one thing in any given amount of time. It takes a generational effort among both the citizens and their elected officials to build a bond of mutual trust, something that I think participatory budgeting lays a wonderful groundwork for.

In looking at how technology can help bridge that gap, I also think it’s critical to keep in mind the “digital divide” that Williams talks about. Those of us in design school and blogging and live tweeting often times forget that there is a basic technology divide, and I would even go so far to say that there are far more people who don’t understand than who do. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t design tech programs that help link and connect people, but like Williams says, “we need to get people to understand the importance and have access to technology.” The last part – access – is critical. Not everyone has an iPad or even a computer, but everyone has a phone. Everyone has a TV. We should be looking at ways to utilize the technologies that we know are universal to engage people in the technology sphere, as a way to bridge that gap between government and citizen.

“Make [technology] something that people WANT to do” is the key.

Participatory budgeting attempts to do something broader which I feel is the core of its nobility. It reveals a part of government to people, brings down the curtain, lets people see the inside. I know the old adage “there are two things you never want to let people see how you make – laws and sausages” but I don’t agree with it. People should be given much more credit than they are currently allowed, and participatory budgeting is a way for local government to make that first step in establishing that trust. Does budgeting have to be something that only politicians understand? Does it have to be stuffy and hearings and rhetoric? Or can it be hands on? Can it be, dare I say, fun? Engaging? Accessible – in both a literal and metaphorical sense?

The steps Councilmember Williams, along with his colleagues, have taken so far in bringing law making to their constituents is a great feet. One that needs to be duplicated and tweaked and expanded on. Like Williams says, “technology is part of the squeaky wheel.”

Looking to Comedy for Process

Regardless of political affiliation, regardless of Red or Blue, one thing I know is true for everyone – we all like comedy.  Everybody likes to laugh.  Comedy has been around, arguably, since before politics, since before government.  So in our studies of how we can improve the systems of government, I thought it might benefit looking at a system which has withstood the test of time – comedy.

One comedian immediately came up in my mind, Louis CK.  Louis has been around the comedy world for decades, but only in the last few years has really taken off.  What’s his secret?  Besides brutal honesty, he has a process which forces his creativity, which is not his process.

Here Louis talks about where his process came from – the late George Carlin.  What George would do, after every special or CD he put out was throw away all his material.  Every year he would do a bit, and as soon as it was done, out with it.  Time to rewrite new material.  Louis reflected on when he heard about this:  “This idea that you throw everything away and you start over again. After you are done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, you throw them away. What do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes until they’re gone.You gotta dig deeper. So then you start thinking about your fears and your nightmares and doing jokes about that. And then they’re gone. And then you start going into just weird shit.  It’s a process that I watched him do my whole life. And I started to try and do it.”

One of the reasons comedy is still funny year after year after decade after century is that you don’t know what’s coming.  That’s the punchline.  So starting fresh makes sense in the process of keeping jokes fresh and therefore, funny.  Couldn’t we apply this to our lawmaking process?  Our methods of developing innovation?

I think when we talk about fixing government, when we talk about changing parts of the system, I think too often we just talk about airplanes and dogs.  We end up using “soft language”, as George would put it.  If something isn’t working, let’s try something new.  I don’t think we should throw away our constitution, but maybe we can throw away and start over on some of our processes.  We could throw away some of our processes of developing innovation.  We can throw away our incomplete projects and start again.  We can try again, we can do better.

Innovation is a verb.  It needs to be moving, to be changing, maybe we need it to be reset every once and a while.  We amend and amend and amend, when have we ever thrown away our material and started fresh?  It’s a terrifying concept, but maybe we need a little fear.

“We citizens are the users. What we’ve always lacked is a well-designed user interface. That’s not a surprise when you consider the era in which our system was invented,” comic strip “Dilbert”‘s Scott Adams wrote.  “Perhaps what we need is a fourth branch of government, smallish and economical, operating independently, with a mission to build and maintain a friendly user interface for citizens to manage their government.”  Great idea.  But let’s make sure comedians are in charge of that branch.

By: Asher Novek

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