Real Change Happens in the Supply Closet

(editor’s note: this project took place several weeks ago.  I’ve spent the last few weeks looking back and reflecting.  Some of these notes were written right after the project ended, some were weeks later)

After two extraordinarily long and busy weeks of working on this project, I was walking to my local watering hole when I walked past a drunk hipster yelling into his phone.  It wasn’t that late, maybe 10 or 11pm, so his ranting was more driven from passion than from PBR, and I overheard him say the following: “we just need to act like people, you know?  If we just acted like people, like decent people, then we could fix anything.  We could fix hunger in Africa.”

The project I’ve been working on the last few weeks is one I’m proud to have worked on, and it also contains a lot of people, organizations, and acronyms, so bear with me.  First, there’s participatory budgeting, which I’ve written about here.  The basic idea is that local politicians will give their constituents the ability to propose and then vote on projects funded by the Councilmember, in a real embodiment of democracy.  Next is Stanford, who are looking at ways to improve crowdsourced democratic processes.  And Democracie 2.1, who I was working with directly, are looking at a new method of the voting process that will root out corrupt extremist parties and give the middle more of a voice.  These three converged to the PB process last week to bring digital ballots to New York for the first time ever.  We wanted to introduce digital ballots into a voting process for many reasons – saving money on paper, the ability to randomize to eliminate bias, accessibility – and the goal of the project was to introduce the concept to voters and see if it worked.

So we brought laptops and tablets to 5 districts, put them in front of people, and let them vote.  My job was organizing and coordinating all the field work.  That meant volunteer recruitment, training, coordination; equipment organizing, transportation, coordination; and then staffing the voting sites myself.  The work I took on was very much in the trenches, in the details, and mostly inside a massive spreadsheet I was living in for weeks.  I had to know where every laptop, mouse, wire was, who had them, how long they needed to be there, where they needed to go next, etc. for the 8 days of testing.  A rather large logistical undertaking for sure, but the key for me was to always keep perspective.

When your job is in the minute details of an operation, you need to be able to see the bigger picture.  You can get lost in the details of who goes where and what goes where and when, but the why is just as important.  We wanted to explore ways of opening up democracy to people using technology.  D21 is exploring ways to bring a more open and equitable democracy to the world.  And as much as the concepts all ring true, as much as the theories all seem right, until you can show that something works, until you can show the practical application of it, it’s just a thought on a napkin.  Taking something from that to real institutional change takes many, many steps.  The first part of those steps: making a giant spreadsheet.

The day before testing began we had to get our equipment into the supply room we were staging out of for the week (at the lovely Civic Hall) and we had to move a lot of boxes from our training room in a hurry before they closed for the day.  While I was shuttling boxes back and forth, I paused, and had a moment.  I thought, “this is it.  This is actually how we’re changing things.”  We were bringing new technology to open up accessibility to a purely democratic process, we were giving voice to people, but most importantly, we were carrying large boxes of flyers and cables back and forth between closets.  That’s the only way it happens, that’s how change actually happens – with carrying boxes back and forth.

You need to have big ideas.  You need to have a vision looking years into the future.  But you also need to carry things with your hands.  The drunk hipster was, not surprisingly, shortsighted.  We can’t just act like people.  We need to work.  Acting like we’re nice and decent humans only gets you so far.  You need to show it with hard work.  That’s how you fix anything, not by acting but by doing.

While we were testing the digital ballots, I was staffing a station in a district office in Brooklyn.  A man came in who was wheelchair bound, with a serious muscular disease.  He initially said that he needed someone to fill in his ballot for him, which he was used to doing at that point.  After he looked at the laptop alternative he said, “I can use this.”  And he did.  He voted using his own hands.  His vote doesn’t count any more than if he voted on paper and someone else filled in the bubbles for him, but he got to do that himself.  That only happened because someone had a big idea, which was broken down into smaller ideas, which was broken down into tasks, which were divided up in a spreadsheet, which were carried out by hard work and carrying boxes around.