7 Tips for Russia, For All of Us

Active community participation is a phrase at the core of “open government”, at least that’s what most countries are putting near the top of their priority lists in their open government initiatives.  In Russia’s Open Government Plan, it’s at the top of their list, citing “involvement of society in decision-making process.”  Based on their draft of their plan to achieve their goals, I believe there are some other countries pursuing similar goals which can help guide Russia’s plans.  Moreso, these ideas and projects that are being taken on can and should be looked at and considered by everyone.  A good idea is a good idea, no matter what country. 

For those following along at home, you can find the initiatives referenced below here – http://www.opengovpartnership.org/countries.  It’s worth taking some time to play around on the site anyway, see what everyone else is doing.  I’ve numbered these ideas in order, but also in parenthesis the action item from Russia’s draft plan.

(1) 1.  Russian Public Initiative – Make sure the whole process is transparent and accessible.  Not just the selection process, but who’s working on what, tracking the progress from beginning to end.  If its budgetary or legislative, let the people see where their proposal is at all times, and give them the opportunity to interact with the agents who are currently handling the project, wherever it may be.  This could be in the form of an online tracking system, with direct links to emails and phone numbers of the government agency overseeing that particular process. 

Or maybe there’s even a more low tech solution.  From Tanzania’s Transparency efforts — “Establishment of public complaints desks in Central and Local Governments. These desks are handled by focal persons appointed by Institutional Chief Executives to receive complaints from the public regarding service delivery, take appropriate action and provide feedback to the public.”  Russia could host “update” desks, where part of their function is to make available updates on any ongoing process.  This could serve as a “low tech” alternative for those still catching up to technology.   

(2) 2.  System of Information Disclosure – an online government manual:  legislation is hard enough to understand and follow even for the legislators, don’t muck up the process for citizens.  “A system for information disclosure” sounds like it could be a basic manual that people could access, describing the processes a bill is going through.  It can be as watered down as an old School House Rock (not sure this reference will carry over in Russian) video, but something that could simply explain in laymen’s terms what’s happening would allow the general public to engage more thoroughly in the process.   

Much like the Transparency Portal Brazil has undertaken – “The Portal provides online information on the execution of the federal budget in clear and understandable language without requiring usernames or passwords to access the pertinent information and data. As of 2010, the Transparency Portal is updated daily, meaning that all of the expenditures executed on a given day are published and available for consultation by Brazilian citizens the following morning.” 

(3) 4.  Non-Profit Sector – In October 2010, Greece launched Labs.OpenGov, “a new experimental attempt in engaging corporate and non-corporate users into generating sophisticated and immediately applicable ideas for crowd-sourced policy making in the field of ICT. It is an open innovations web laboratory that brings together experts from the technological community and institutions that manage information technology projects for the public sector and citizens.”   The interactions between non profits, the public, and the govt. is a crucial development. 

Can the NFP world be a voice for the people?  Is that what the NFP wants?  Is that what’s best for the people?  Strengthening the bond between public service organizations and people is a great task, especially when referring to containing and collecting data.  Who collects the data and who stores it are two crucial questions when regarding data, and local non profits have the ability to assist in both those areas. 

(4) 5.  Control over Execution – “Fulfilling of control over their execution” is a loaded phrase.  Will people be allowed to work on a project directly?  Oversee its management?  Involving people in a project can be a great community growth exercise, if done well.  A project which involves infrastructure in a given community, such as construction of a playground or community garden, would be improved if the community was involved.  Tanzania’s Citizen Participation section, “formulation and approval of Local Government budgets through a participatory approach known as “Opportunities and Obstacles to Development” (O&OD).The approach allows villages to prepare plans and budgets and submit them to the higher LGA level for inclusion in the Council‟s plans and budgets.”  Bringing the government out of the realm of the intangible and into the world of touching and planting raises the level of connection between people and the government. 

(5) 8.1.  Public Surveys – In Uganda, a program, “UReport” – http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/uganda_62001.html – is a great example of creating public surveys for the government to gather information directly from the citizens.  The basic concept is that questions are posed and people can send in their answers via SMS.  The data is then collected around various issues and published publicly.  I think it’s important here to let people bring up the issues and the questions surveyed. 

(6) 9.2.  Information Database – A mass available set of public sector data is a great thing.  But why not make it interactive!  Just seeing the data is one thing, but being able to do something with it is another.  Can it link to a newspaper to report suspicious filings?  Reporters can play an intriguing role in the sense that they can add the accountability factor that the government needs to be held against.  Politically these days, reporters often carry more of a threat than citizens do, so giving a citizen that direct contact will a) empower them to search critically, and b) put politicians on edge.  For example, in Kenya a local newspaper recently launched a citizen reporting app – http://www.humanipo.com/news/1610/Kenyan-newspaper-unveils-citizen-reporting-app – which allows people to report any kind of news directly to the paper.  While this type of technology would need to be monitored for legitimization, the concept could be applied to root out government corruption and empower the citizens directly. 

(7) 23.  Training Program – If we’re looking to develop a new group of public servants with a specialty in open government, why not start with programs in lower education?  Middle schools and high schools can integrate open government curriculums.  After high school, programs could be offered which counted for college credit.  Even further, people could be recruited into programs and the government could supplement part of their higher education.  Much like the US Army operates, a recently graduated high school student could serve as part of an open government program for anywhere between 2-3 years and the government could pay for part of their college education.

I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (pt. 6)

Ideas

Rather than further blind cooperation, I have begun to draw out some solutions to these issues.  The solution cannot be easy.  Deep-rooted systematic issues never are.  However if we approach the problems holistically, if we can break down the issues piece by piece, at the very least you can begin a discussion of why I’m wrong.

1.  Education:  Allow me to take a moment and stop pointing fingers all over the place and take a step back.  Awareness and participation are both essential, but without the institutional framework; the process will surely break down.  Early in educational programming, in elementary schools, middle schools, night schools, correctional facilities, summer camps, we should teach basic government concepts.  What taxes are, where they go, what they do, growing and expanding on process, and most importantly where you, the citizen, fits into that process.  People should feel a necessary part of the system, not the outsider who only feels the negative effects of the system.  Seeing as how government is built on the people, we should emphasize the necessity of their role.  Without a constituency a politician would be a crazy person standing on a soapbox yelling about health care.  The people are the oft-neglected piece of the system, mainly so those in power can wield more power over them.  An informed people will at least have the ability to argue back.  Empower the people, and empowerment begins with education.

2.  Disclosure:  If I give my room mate 10 dollars to buy a carton of milk, I don’t necessarily need to know what store he went to, what his interaction with the cashier was like, how many cartons he sifted through to find the furthest expiration date.  But I would like to see the carton of milk.  I would like to have my change.  If necessary, I might even want to see the receipt.  Why don’t we hold our politicians to the same relatively low standard?  Show us where the money goes and what it does when it gets there.  The release of information is such an easy way to establish trust, it makes me wary of anyone holding back.  We don’t need to see how you make the sausages, but at least let us see how you’re spending our money.

3.  Oversight Entity:  Looking at these issues from the perspective of politicians, a perspective we should not forget or ignore, the increase in sheer magnitude of added administrative work to accomplish some of these tasks would halt their abilities to function day to day.  An independent body, an agency, an organization, whose sole purpose was to administer and oversee the discretionary budgeting process is what we should rely on.  Devoid of politics, absent of corruption.  The physical and social infrastructure for such a body exists in various pieces around the City.  The IBO (Independent Budget Office) releases reports on various city programming.  The NYC Comptroller’s Office conducts and releases audits of city agencies and their programs.  Citizens Union is a non profit good government group which rates and studies city politicians and their actions.  There are multitudes of political clubs across the City, which claim to stand for reform and progress in local government.  Each of these groups and entities, and many more unmentioned, have the capacity to build an active coalition.  Each group must set aside personal ego and be willing to be a part of the solution, rather than continuously complain about the problem.  Don’t let the politicians use lack of administrative resources, as legitimate as it is, as their excuse.

Maybe it wouldn’t even be such a bad idea to publicly tar and feather Larry Seabrook or Carl Kruger or Vito Lopez.  An oversight entity can help ongoing investigations to root out current corruption.  We should not act as though with only oversight that crime will cease.  Those who we have caught, who have been rooted out as criminals should serve as an example to those thinking about a life of crime.  I would never recommend a beheading and sticking someone’s head on a stake, but then again I don’t live in Larry Seabrook’s district.

4.  Restructure Process Top Down:  If the process of discretionary funding is transparent and the community is engaged, until we reform the system from the beginning, not much will change.  We still have the power of one Councilmember deciding the fate of millions of taxpayer dollars.  I will not claim to have the best and most equitable distribution formula, but I do know that it should not be in the sole possession of one person’s political discretion.  Whatever the formula is – socioeconomic status, population, a measure of need, highest percentage of adorable puppies – it should be discussed and debated publicly and never left open to the powers of political patronage.  Even in a perfect world with an incorruptible Speaker, with 51 honest and dedicated Councilmembers, let us all agree to never allow the potential for corruption in the first place.  Cut off corruption at the top and maybe, just maybe, honesty will trickle down.

5.  Civic Revolution/Malleable Revolution/Revolution 2.0:  I certainly to not advocate for a violent revolution of any sort, filled with protests and gas masks and riots.  Revolutions can come in all shapes and sizes, and maybe what we need more is an interventional revolution, or a revolutionary intervention.  We don’t need pitchforks and torches, we need sound arguments and pragmatic solutions.  The will and desire is already running through the people of New York, both the politicians and the citizenry.  What are we all waiting for?  Let’s decide that it’s not acceptable to take our money and give it to your niece.  Let’s decide that it’s not acceptable to allocate funding to districts whose representatives have done you political favors.  Let’s decide that we deserve a voice in the process, somewhere.

Take it upon yourself to begin a conversation with someone, anyone.  Change the public discourse, change the participants in the conversation.  We are rarely presented with the decision of right versus wrong.  More often than not we are faced with the decision to act or to do nothing.  Chose right, chose wrong, but chose something.  Never ignore your ability to act.  This is the true nature of democracy.  This is what we must strive towards.  And we should not settle for anything less, anything apathetic, anything devoid of participation.  The status quo is not meant to be accepted, it is meant to be challenged.  Some people set the bar low and think “I can clear that easily”; others see the low bar and think “how can I raise it?”  What you chose is not the most crucial piece, rather the debate is where progress lies.  Involve people around you, the people you represent in the decision and you are a true shepherd of democracy.

If it’s so easy to identify the problem, why is it still so easy to steal our allowance right from our pockets?

The Words We Use

As we try to define and materialize the phrase “open government” the rhetoric we use can be just as critical as the ideas we generate.  In general, I’ve found a distinct “us” and “them” feeling around the way ‘open government’ is talked about, as opposed to the “we” I believe is at its core.

Even in President Obama’s memo “Transparency and Open Government” – which is a tremendous step in the direction of collaboration and openness – has a tinge of separation between government and its people:  “Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their government…”  instead of we can learn together.

Through the powers of social media, now more than ever people’s voices are being heard.  How we hear those voices, who’s listening, and what they’re doing when they hear it, these are the issues we’re facing now.  When we’re looking at these issues, it’s important to remember that we need to keep everyone on the same level.  An “us” and “them” mentality won’t work.  Together we can solve the problems, together we can discuss the problems, together we can open up to new solutions.

I hope that through this blog, my colleagues and I can alter the rhetoric, expand the participants in the discourse, inspire action around the idea of an open government.

–  I will be blogging here on as well: http://gov30.typepad.com/crowdlaw/

I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (pt. 5)

What’s Next?

When I was 8 or 9 I went to day camp.  Not sleep away camp, just a place to go for 8 hours while my parents worked and in some way enriched me or just kept me away from drugs and hookers or whatever else 8 year olds get into.  You went to a few over the course of the summer and each one had a different theme.  Camp Adventuresomethingorother was the sports one, there was Camp Echo which was the nature one, and my favorite.  We’d go on nature walks and swamp excursions and get to take our shoes off and everything.  I went to this one, Camp Arts and Crafts or something, and we just made arts and crafts.  Glitter and cotton balls and popsicle sticks that turn into stick grenades, yeah it’s a thing, and the whole thing.

There were skits and singing and dancing and everything I guess you do when you realize that you want to be an actor or dancer or painter/unemployed when you grow up.  I did all the things, painted trees and made a flag out of construction paper and acted in the skit.  I did an impression of Steve Urkel, did I do thaaaaat, we did skits at the end for the parents with all our stuff on display.  And they gave awards to everyone, best painting, best water color, best use of red glitter, best flag, most athletic, everyone got one.  So I was waiting, sitting, everyone around me getting awards.  Finally the ceremony ends and they hand out the rest to those of us getting awards for less public showcase worthy titles like most likely to set the place on fire and most times pooped their pants.  I got mine, I still remember my award.

Most Cooperative.  Least likely to make a fuss, most likely to follow directions, first in line when the counselors said to go somewhere, do something, best listener, least rebellious.   It wasn’t for one thing, because there wasn’t one thing that I did well.  I didn’t color outside the lines, I didn’t paint the Israeli flag in different colors.  I just did as I was told.

In that moment at that time in that wooden cabin in the purple shorts my parents let me wear all the time I don’t care if I was 8 years old, I knew who I was.  And I didn’t like it.  I know it’s hard to believe that an 8 year old can have a life altering epiphanal moment but I did.  I promised myself that from that moment on I wouldn’t just accept everything told to me, that I would do things because they made me happy because they were the right thing to do because that’s how I would do it, not because that’s what you told me to do.  Don’t just cooperate to win an award.  Trust me, it’s a shitty award.

There is an argument floating around the cosmos that by and large people are simple, short sighted beings.  Cooperative beings.  They like the things they like, they have their worlds, they want to go to work, eat cheeseburgers, and watch Monday Night Football.  And I accept that for the most part that’s all people need to worry about.  “People” don’t want to think about the world at large and they shouldn’t have to.  A steel worker in Indiana doesn’t necessarily need to concern him or herself with the after school programming needs in the Bronx.  He or she shouldn’t have to.  But someone does, and someone should.  These people need to stop using simplicity as an excuse.  A simple and ill informed constituency is not an excuse.  Instead of using that as a stepping stool to the platform of condescending “well-you-see”s and “this-is-far-too-complex”s, why not use it as a stepping stool to “let’s-talk-about-this”s and “now-we-all-understand”s.

The need isn’t just to have an intellectual debate, although no one would argue that as a strong societal characteristic, the need is to be able to have such a debate.  To make accessible the necessary tools to have such a debate, and we are far, far away from that point.  Change doesn’t happen overnight.  Change, true and institutional reform in the way people think and learn and behave isn’t a quick fix.  I just wonder why it’s 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.  When did we decide that was ok?  The wool isn’t over our eyes anymore.  Unless I missed a very important meeting, which must have served very expensive bagels.

I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt (pt. 4)

From Brazil to Boroughs

New York City likes to proclaim itself the “crossroads of the world.”  The center of global economic and cultural development.  If New York City is going to stand on such a platform, how can we get something so obvious so wrong?  How can 51 people decide how to spend the people’s money, and how can 1 person decide how much those 51 people are allowed to spend?  Trusting the City Council to allocate 66 billion dollars of the city’s budget is tough enough of a job.  But the money intended to funnel directly to the citizens being hidden behind process and inaccessible seems downright Stalinesque.  Let, not just let, but give the people insight, give the people a voice, give the people power, and trust will surely foster.  Some parts of the world outside of the crossroad understand this.  The first to understand and implement these concepts into tangible action is Brazil.

After years of militaristic and oppressive rule, Brazil finally achieved independence and established democracy in 1988.  Their newly founded constitution brought in several dramatic democratic ideals, including a strong focus on citizen participation.  “Article 26 requires participation of civil society organizations in the elaboration of public policy and articles 204 and 207 require popular participation in the formulation and control of health and social security.”  Their goals in requiring participation of its people in their government were focused around four principles:  “1) direct citizen participation in the decision making process 2) transparency to prevent corruption 3) improvement of infrastructure and services focusing on the poor and 4) eradicating clientelistic practices and transforming residents into empowered citizens capable of pursuing their rights.”  The results have been astonishing.  Beginning in Porto Alegre, just under 1000 people participated in 1989.  In 1992 that number jumped to 26,000, and the principles began to spread throughout the country.  In Rio Grande, between 1999 and 2002 participation rose from 188,000 to 333,000.

The process is rooted in a grassroots style, empowering the citizens to educate one another, to debate with one another, to identify and resolve issues amongst one another.  It is not to say that government has been removed from the process either.  A report put out by the Inter-American Development Bank commented that “participants in the [participatory budgeting process] include the leadership that shapes popular opinion, drives the social agenda and mobilizes communities.  Hence the important practical dimensions of the [PB] as a partnership building process rather than an expedient electoral strategy.” A process used to bridge government to its people, creating an open culture of education, participation, and trust.  The process found such success that it has spread all throughout Brazil, through numerous Latin American countries, skipped over the southern chunk of America, made its way through the Lincoln tunnel and spread uptown, over the Queensborough Bridge, and down the Brooklyn bridge.

Last year, four progressive Councilmembers – Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, Jumaane Williams, and Brad Lander – 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 tapped into the nostalgia of true democracy.  People gathered in libraries, school gyms, community centers, carrying their tri-fold poster boards of ideas, pitched their ideas, voiced their concerns to one another, and did so periodically over the course of several months.  The project culminated in a vote by the constituents, open to all who wanted to participate, voting for the top ideas to receive funding.  The results were tallied on site and written in on a giant neon posterboard.  While the numbers might not seem astronomical, some districts seeing around 100 participants, the concept has begun to seep into other communities, spreading from the ground up, and already has been promised in numerous other districts come the next fiscal year.  The ‘experiment’ is moving further away from a concept and more to a ‘process.’

It is difficult to measure the results of a non-tangible concept.  Can we measure trust in government?  Can we quantify the honesty of politicians?  Measuring the success of the participatory budgeting project in New York City may seem impossible, but the fact that it happened and the groundwork laid for expansion is success enough.  New York City doesn’t need to institute total reform as Brazil has.  Let the Council do its mandated duty of balancing the City budget.  But if we’re going to have a portion of the budget set aside for local programs, increased public participation will only strengthen the bonds between constituents and their representatives.  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 to.  Full disclosure, clear transparency, open dialogue, active engagement.  None of these popular buzz phrases spawn from secrecy and corruption.

I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt (pt. 3)

Oh, Larry

The Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation (NEBRC) is a non-profit formed in 1992 “formed to provide educational, recreational and cultural programs for the people of the Northeast Bronx.”  The organization sought appropriations from the New York State legislator and was awarded NYS Education Department grants; all in all totaling over 1.4 million dollars between 1993 and 1998.  The appropriations were awarded by then State Senator Lawrence Seabrook, and the grants were awarded towards the organization’s goal to built and operate a youth center.  Since the organization’s creation in 1992, Seabrook has supported the organization through discretionary funding from the State level and more recently at the City level.  While the funding continued to roll in, the operation of the NEBRC has been called into question, issues of conflicts of interest have been raised about the staff of the NEBRC, and now City Councilmember Seabrook has been indicted, tried, and found guilty of corruption and money laundering.  And the youth center has yet to be constructed.

An audit conducted by the New York State Education Department of the NEBRC, between 1993 and 1998 found over $45,000 of state funding unaccounted for entirely, 54% of the total funds questionable, and a lack of control over fiscal or administrative activities.  “NEBRC has not completed its annual financial statements in a timely manner, or filed its required reports with the IRS in a timely manner, and has not maintained an adequate inventory system.”  The audit found that the NEBRC had written a manual to address financial and administrative duties and responsibilities, however they were not following through.  Furthermore, “NEBRC has not accomplished the primary purpose of the legislative grants to organize, build, operate and maintain a youth center…NEBRC’s operational plan does not identify a facility where services will be offered.” In five years, the NERBC was poorly managed and did not meet any of the organization’s set goals.  However, Seabrook was not deterred in his funding decisions.

Roughly around the same time Seabrook moved from the State Senate to the New York City Council, he helped form another non-profit, the African-American Legal and Civic Hall of Fame, which was formed with the purpose of producing and sustaining the African-American Bronx Unity Parade.  In 2009, the New York Times found that “the African-American Bronx Unity Day Parade has left the lightest of footprints.  It has never received I.R.S. approval to actually operate as a nonprofit. It has never filed a tax return. And, it seems, it has never run a parade…From July 2004 through March 2007, the city paid more than $156,900 in rent reimbursements for space that the parade organization paid only $40,000 to rent.” And the parade has yet to be produced.

Why would an elected official continue to pour more and more of his district’s own money into ineffective organizations?  Why were these groups chosen by Seabrook year after ineffective year?  In February of 2010, the Manhattan US Attorney provided the public with an answer in a press release headlined, “Seabrook Also Accused Of Fraudulently Steering More Than $1 Million In New York City Council Discretionary Funds To Non-Profits He Controlled To Benefit His Friends And Family.”  The charges against Seabrook included accusations of his funding to these organizations due to his ties with their staff members.  The executive director of each of the organizations was Gloria Jones-Grant, a girlfriend of Seabrook’s.  The organizations have also paid over $600,000 in consulting fees to Seabrook’s brother, sisters, nephews, and even a $750 consulting fee to Seabrook’s 16 year old grand-daughter.  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.

On the one hand, family members have employed one another in the past with tremendous results; on another hand the rules in place at the time of his accused actions permitted his behavior; on yet another hand, as long as someone earns a salary that Seabrook feels is insignificant enough then their qualifications should not come into question, even if the results of that person’s work have proven insufficient time and time again.  In none of Seabrook’s defenses does he answer questions about the organizations’ failures, or the failures mentioned in either the 1999 or 2006 audits.

More than anything I wish I could have been in the room when Larry Seabrook had the conversation with his girlfriend, Gloria.

Larry:  Ok baby, I’m going to make all your dreams come true.  As long as your dreams involve lying to the New York legislature and syphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the electorate.

Gloria:  Oh Larry, you make me so hot.

Larry:  Good, because I’m going to have an assorted affair with you while keeping you on staff so you can stow away money for me and the rest of my family also, and when push comes to shove, I’ll just throw you under the bus.

Gloria:  That’s fine, I still love you.  I’ll stand by you and lie for you and we’ll get through this!

Larry:  Sure thing, I’m definitely not going to say I never knew you or loved you in courts or on TV and told you to do anything and that I’m ashamed to have known such a careless and insufferable woman.  Under oath.  And you’ll definitely not get screwed of all your potential for future employment or the chance to live a normal life ever again.

Gloria:  Let’s make out.

I mean, I wasn’t there, but I imagine it was something like that.

There were failures on nearly every level of potentially accountable people and entities.  The staffers who worked along side Seabrook’s family in all three organizations and did not raise any issues until compelled by a subpoena.  The Speaker of the Council Christine Quinn for continuously approving a discretionary budget for Seabrook without a finer investigation into his allocations.  The voters for voting in Seabrook for a third term to the City Council, after he had already been under investigation twice before.  The lack of connection made between the State legislature and the City legislature, allowing for two independent audits to come to the same conclusion seven years apart from one another and funding continued after both became public.  Whatever Seabrook’s incentive has been, be it nepotism, sheer greed, or obtaining political points in his community, until 2010 there was little to no disincentive enforced.

Non-profit organizations themselves are responsible for creating a culture of reporting internal cases, but on a larger scale the legislature is responsible for creating a similar culture among the citizens of New York.   That culture could be altered by Speaker Quinn; she had the opportunity to not approve Seabrook for a further $350,000 of discretionary funding for the coming fiscal cycle, while he is under investigation and on trial.  However, Quinn has stood firm in her decision to allow him the money.  In her defense, Quinn said, “We no longer have an honor system. We have a verification system, where the groups that are seeking funding from the Council are taken through an aggressive vetting process.”  Quinn’s decision not to impose discipline on Seabrook provides little disincentive not to follow in Seabrook’s path; rather, it merely allows the opportunity to find other ways around the rules as Seabrook has been doing for decades.  A true disincentive and punishment system must be set in place by those with the authority to impose it, while all Quinn has implemented so far is a more red-tape filled honor system.

We can tar and feather Larry Seabrook as many times as we want, but until the systematic issues are addressed all we will be doing is funding the tar and feather industry.  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.”  Larry Seabrook stole the money, the jewelry, even the sign, while no one seemed to notice or care.  Our elected officials were too busy worrying about polling numbers and fundraising efforts to realize the devastating problem they could have been addressing all along.  The problem is larger than one district, even larger than one city.  Corruption happens all over the world, and sometimes even New York isn’t the first to realize something.

Outlining papers

A paper looking at restructuring African land tenure
A paper looking at restructuring African land tenure

This is my paper on restructuring African land tenure systems. Start with an idea and build it out. The white board wall helps.

It starts with the problem, identifying concrete examples of the problem, explaining the problem in 3 different regions (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania), then showing how they share systematic problems, what’s the new idea, how does it work, how would it work, what happens next.

On the right is the new system broken down.

I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (pt 2)

Where We Are Now

In a perfect world, all of these processes and systems are equitable, incorruptible, and raises the credibility of our elected officials.  In a perfect world funding is distributed to those organizations and programs which serve the people’s needs effectively in ways local government cannot; groups that foster relationships between the needs of the community and the resources of the city.  In a perfect world all politicians are pure, noble, dedicated, honest public servants.  The problem is you usually only meet those politicians while they’re losing an election to a candidate well funded by special interests.  The world isn’t perfect, politicians aren’t perfect, the system isn’t perfect.  The discretionary funding system is so easy to manipulate, you’ll be angry at yourself for not devoting yourself to a life of crime sooner.

Imagine for a period of time that you are a corrupt politician.  Or a budding corrupt politician.  How would you go about laundering money?  The concept behind money laundering and embezzlement is actually simpler than you might think.  Every year the New York City Council debates budget allocation.  How much money goes to parks, how much to schools, infrastructure, how much for this project, how much for that project.  It’s what they spend the majority of their time doing.  A portion of that budget every year gets sectioned away for discretionary funding.  These are funds, which each Councilmember has for their own allocation amongst programs in their respective districts.  Usually, ideally, in a perfect world, the funding is meant for local programs, which the citywide budget wouldn’t normally get to.  Local senior centers, after school programs, a tree, these sorts of items can and should be funded by a Councilmember’s discretionary funding.

Now, say for example, the funding goes to an organization meant to alleviate unemployment by offering adult career services.  You might think that organization needs to undergo some sort of vetting or oversight process.  It does not.  You might think the people running that organization, employed by your tax dollars, would need to adhere to some sort of vetting or oversight process.  They do not.  You might think that if an organization is funded by public dollars for years and the people who ran the organization were direct relatives of the Councilmember who funded it and the goals of the organization had never been close to met, this might raise some sort of flag and it might be a shade of red.  Can you see where I’m going with this?

There is a church in Staten Island, which recently fell victim to a funding scandal.  The bookkeeper, a sweet old church going lady, was arrested for several accounts of embezzlement.  What was her secret?  Writing herself checks just under the amount which would have required permission from her supervisor.  She took just enough to never be noticed for decades and stored it away.  Her ultimate downfall wasn’t the clever findings of an employee, just an upgrade in the technology used to store the data, which triggered an alarm.  She would have made a great City Councilmember.  What corrupt politicians have institutionalized is taking a little money here, a little money there, just enough for no one to notice.

Back to you, the criminal politician.  The basic premise of stealing discretionary funding first lies in creating your phony or shell company.  These organizations need to serve a dier need in the community, such as unemployment or after school programs or cultural centers.  Then you found the organization and you staff it with those you trust and with whom you funnel the money through.  They should be close friends, companions, family members.  People you keep close to your heart, people who will never turn on you, people who will always have your back.  People who, if it came to it, you would sell out to the police at any given moment.  You’re a spineless thief after all, remember to stay in character.

Once you have your fully staffed organization, you just have to have them apply for your discretionary funding, make some impassioned speeches about how your community needs the services they provide (ok, they don’t have to be THAT impassioned, but try to get into it) and then funnel the money over to your shell company.  The trick next is to not use that money for anything you said it would do, you just keep the money.  Maybe the employees make campaign contributions to you, maybe they buy you that boat you’ve always wanted but were too poor to afford as a thank you for founding their organization, or maybe they just hand you a bag of unmarked bills with a dollar sign on the side of it.  The choice is yours, Mr. or Mrs. Corrupt Politician.  Be creative.  Luckily you won’t have to worry all that much because once the money is allocated from the Council budget to the Councilmember and approved, there’s no oversight to its use or effectiveness of the organization.  It’s a good faith kind of thing.  Like the give a penny take a penny cup.  Only with billions of pennies (but only millions of dollars).

How can this be true, you’re probably asking yourself, or asking me through yourself.  The problem is that these funds go to so many organizations in such varying degrees, that you would need an entirely new entity just to oversee and ensure the effectiveness of the awarded money.  But we’ll get to that later.  One key is in the discretionary fund’s allocation from the City budget, because the corruption starts way before it even reaches your corrupt politician hands.

Before you, the greedy politician, even have the chance to ask for your share of the discretionary funding, first you need to make sure you’re in bed with the right politician.  There’s really no worse feeling than waking up next to the wrong politician.  If you get to extort people into voting and supporting you so you can pay them back with laundered city funds, then you first have to vote and support the New York City Council Speaker.  The Speaker is elected internally, by the City Councilmembers, a progress begging for political patronage.  In fact if you look up political patronage in the dictionary there’s a footnote: *please see New York City Council Speaker.

The Speaker acts as the deciding vote in the case of a tie, presents the final budget to the Mayor, and allocates the discretionary fund pot amongst the Council.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Ready?  One Councilmember, someone elected in their district, gets to decide on his or her own, how the discretionary money is allocated amongst his or her colleagues.  The Councilmember of one district is the sole decider of how much money goes into all 51 districts.  Not a team of people.  Not a committee.  Not an independently elected position.  Not an objective and non-political appointee.  The Speaker, voted in by one district, one constituency.

How is a Speaker elected?  I’ve never been a first hand party to the process, but I can imagine a fair amount of political favors, under and over the table deals, alliances, personal vendettas, political factions and ambitions all play a major role.  So it should be no surprise that those Councilmembers who are closer politically to the Speaker get a higher percentage of the pie, than those who call out the Speaker on issues or have a bloody past.  The money from the people, intended to serve the people is diluted and tempered with the stench of politics and corruption before it even has the chance to be stolen.  If you intend to steal it, make sure you stay close to the Speaker.  One Councilmember in particular flew too close to the sun, and after syphoning off city and state funding for decades, finally fell.  Enter – Larry Seabrook.

I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (pt 1)

Allowance

Ok kids, who here gets an allowance?  A few kids raise their hands.  Ok, now do your parents give it to you?  Nodding!  Do you get to spend it on whatever you want?  The beginnings of nodding but then the realization that the question is deeper than originally anticipated.  Well, I get to spend it on…while they started to think about whatever it is that six year olds spend money on, I waited and let the question sink in.  It was an early morning at PS31 in Brooklyn at their yearly career day and I was elected to represent my boss – a citywide politician who controls the NYC pension fund, manages billions of dollars in assets, oversees city contracting, and conducts citywide audits – at an elementary school career day.

The morning started with breakfast in the quaint school library on tables and chairs designed for children, with us “professionals” gathering around the danish and coffee table.  The bit I had gone over in my head was quickly thrown out the window when I realized I would be surrounded by firefighters and teachers and pilots.  Explaining politics, especially financial political offices, is tough enough to break down to well educated adults with an interest in local government.  Today my job was explaining this to 6, 7, and 8 year olds.

Ok kids, now who here gets an allowance?  What do you get to spend it on?  Do you get to spend it on whatever you want?  Sommmmeetimes.  But sometimes you have to save it and put it in the bank, right?  An unhappy reminder induced yeeeeeees.  That’s kind of like what taxes are!  Taxes are things that the Mayor takes away from everyone to buy things that we all need like teachers and firefighters and playgrounds.  Who here likes playgrounds?  (Hint: everybody likes playgrounds.)  The teachers in the room were appreciative that the kids finally acknowledged their services as necessary, or at the very least felt proud to be compared to a playground.

Whether or not any of these kids now have a better understanding of local government, or would actively pursue a career in public service, I doubt despite my best efforts.  But it did get me thinking about the foundation which we base our knowledge of government and taxes.  Most of us, by which I mean myself, never had taxes explained to us.  We didn’t get guest speakers or applicable metaphors for what government is and does until high school at which point you’re too rebellious to care about the morals and ethics of fair and equitable government.  It’s something controlling, my parents are controlling; I hate my parents, I hate government.  We don’t understand what government does with our money in great detail, we don’t get a tutorial in budgetary processes, we aren’t taught lessons in what FICA is or does, we just know that they took some of my hard earned money I made at KFC.  We don’t see the line items for roads and police task forces; or the debates for funding for street signs.  We don’t know where it goes, what it does when it gets there, or who’s doing it.  We trust our elected officials to make these decisions for us.  We trust they act honestly and with our best interests.  This is why it has been so shockingly easy for those who do understand and control the systematic processes to abuse, corrupt, and steal in plain sight our allowance right out from our pockets.