It’s time to let citizens tackle the wickedest public problems

Gabriella Capone at apolitical (a winner of the 2018 Apolitical Young Thought Leaders competition): “Rain ravaged Gdańsk in 2016, taking the lives of two residents and causing millions of euros in damage. Despite its 700-year history of flooding the city was overwhelmed by these especially devastating floods. Also, Gdańsk is one of the European coasts most exposed to rising sea levels. It needed a new approach to avoid similar outcomes for the next, inevitable encounter with this worsening problem.

Bringing in citizens to tackle such a difficult issue was not the obvious course of action. Yet this was the proposal of Dr. Marcin Gerwin, an advocate from a neighbouring town who paved the way for Poland’s first participatory budgeting experience.

Mayor Adamowicz of Gdańsk agreed and, within a year, they welcomed about 60 people to the first Citizens Assembly on flood mitigation. Implemented by Dr. Gerwin and a team of coordinators, the Assembly convened over four Saturdays, heard expert testimony, and devised solutions.

The Assembly was not only deliberative and educational, it was action-oriented. Mayor Adamowicz committed to implement proposals on which 80% or more of participants agreed. The final 16 proposals included the investment of nearly $40 million USD in monitoring systems and infrastructure, subsidies to incentivise individuals to improve water management on their property, and an educational “Do Not Flood” campaign to highlight emergency resources.

It may seem risky to outsource the solving of difficult issues to citizens. Yet, when properly designed, public problem-solving can produce creative resolutions to formidable challenges. Beyond Poland, public problem-solving initiatives in Mexico and the United States are making headway on pervasive issues, from flooding to air pollution, to technology in public spaces.

The GovLab, with support from the Tinker Foundation, is analysing what makes for more successful public problem-solving as part of its City Challenges program. Below, I provide a glimpse into the types of design choices that can amplify the impact of public problem-solving….(More)