“We don’t need more leaders. We need more followers. Wherever & however you can enter public life is ok.”
That tweet by Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, is a radical provocation in our age of the non-expert. The nation is gripped by the fantasy that the least-qualified, least-experienced among us make ideal leaders. Dissatisfaction — no, real anger — with the status quo, as opposed to informed ideas or policy experience, seems to define qualifications for public service.
This shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise. I guess moms have stopped telling their kids, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Far too many of our public processes, from school board meetings to town halls, provide citizens with a forum to complain but not much else. Hand ‘em a mike and two minutes and they’ll unleash a torrent of opinion — but it’s unlikely anyone will step forward with constructive advice or proactive steps relating to budget cuts or the latest environmental action report.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with complaints — we’ve all got plenty to gripe about these days — and it is important that we have forums in which to air them. In just one recent week, for example (as illustrated in this beautiful infographic from Wired UK), New York City’s 311 number received 34,522 complaints, mostly having to do with rodents, noise and taxi cabs. So there is no shortage of problems to solve. But, increasingly, there is less time, and fewer resources and people, to do so.
What if there were a way to transform complaints into something positive and productive? What if we reframed the exchange to be less about adversity and more about cooperation and action? What if citizens were encouraged to offer their thoughts on how things from transit systems to city parks might be improved — as opposed to simply airing their grievances about all that was wrong with them?
That’s the beauty of Give a Minute, created as part of CEOs for Cities’ US Initiative by the media design firm Local Projects. Says Coletta, “We need more citizens who feel agency — that they can actually influence the future of their communities. Otherwise, there is complacency and resignation. Give a Minute encourages agency. Go ahead. Share your ideas. Change your city.”
In embracing a technology that nearly everyone now possesses — text messaging — Give a Minute provides a fast, cheap and easy way to share ideas, connect them together and make them happen. As Local Project’s Jake Barton, whose firm has excelled in previous participatory projects like StoryCorps, explains, “It’s like 311 for new ideas.”