Tapping into our community’s aggregate wisdom

My April 26th Daily Tar Heel guest column:

During the November campaign, I spoke of tapping into Chapel Hill’s “talent, innovation and creativity,” a reflection of my belief that good governance flows from maximizing citizen involvement.

How best to tap Chapel Hill’s wisdom?

Echoing Helmer-Hirschberg’s 1950s Delphi Method research, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” suggests that, given a suitable diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization and aggregation, a wise crowd will pick the better path.

Maybe one day our town might employ blogs, e-mail and online surveys to tap into our community’s aggregate intelligence.

Until then, given the unwieldy nature of real crowds, the council should continue to seek guidance from citizen advisory boards. Our boards, open to a wide and decentralized membership, often reveal creatively independent and diverse opinions.

But on April 10, Mayor Kevin Foy surprised both the Technology and Horace Williams citizens committees by declaring their missions accomplished. With only council member Laurin Easthom dissenting, the mayor’s resolution quickly dispatched citizens’ counsel without outlining future plans.

As a member of both committees, I knew their work was far from done.

In early January, the citizens committee presented the council a reformed charter outlining additional work – fleshing out the environmental, transit and fiduciary principles in its 2004 report.

Recognizing the potentially rapid evolution of UNC’s plans, the committee stood ready to reflect, in near real-time, on the Carolina North Leadership Council’s proposals. Further, with the principles it developed serving as the basis for discussions on Carolina North, it made no sense, as eight members noted, to end the term now.

The technology committee, fighting a few long-term organizational problems, still successfully introduced council-approved innovations in the past year. Among them, the electronic meetings pilot program and a yearly review of the town’s technology budget.

Other than embarrassment, are there any other consequences of going without experienced counsel? Well, on the heels of dissolution, our transit department is poised to make a $950,000 mistake.

Last year, the committee discussed transit notification systems that would provide not only digital signs for bus arrival times but fixed and mobile (on the bus) WiFi hot spots. Besides being cheaper than the proposed NextBus Inc.’s proprietary system, these alternatives were capable of serving police and fire operations.

The mayor, commenting on the qualifications for a new manager, cautioned us not to worry too much “about this whole technology thing.” That hesitancy is reflected by our town management’s failure to adopt technological solutions to enhance productivity and provide greater levels of public service.

Further delay is costing the taxpayers dearly.

Worse, the council has few strong advocates for these operational improvements or for technology initiatives, such as the municipal wireless network, in general. Bereft of a citizens board, it falls to our new manager to bring technology experience and advice to our council.

Is the dissolution of these citizens boards a trend?

In spite of last year’s celebratory statements, the citizens budget review committee hasn’t been reconstituted. This year’s budget appears solid only if you discount the one-time $2 million relaxation in our reserve requirements (a sum that should be put in a rainy-day “lock box”), the surprise increase in sales tax revenues and busting our conservative debt service ratio.

Surely the review board would’ve ferreted out additional savings, like it did in last year’s budget, to offset the artificially balanced nature of this year’s budget.

I’m sure it’s easier to rule without the potential of discordant citizen advice, but the council does the citizenry a disservice when it dismantles or never constitutes valuable sources of citizen wisdom.

Contact Raymond at column@willraymond.org.


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