Inside Talking Transition: New York City’s biggest public engagement project

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Leave it to New York City to come up with new ways to use a tent. No longer just an outdoor shelter for camping, social events and festivals, the Big Apple recently used one to host its largest ever public engagement exercise, Talking Transition.

Last week, I was invited by the Broadbent Institute to a luncheon in Vancouver with guest speaker Andrea Batista Schlesinger, a deputy director at the Open Society Foundations. She shared lessons from the Society’s Talking Transition program, a massive project centred around building a tent that became a public gathering place to collect ideas from over 50,000 people. The initiative occurred during a pivotal moment when New York City transitioned to a new mayor. 

After 12 years under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, citizens were ready for a change, particularly to address the city’s “crisis of affordability.” New Yorkers are spending more and more to cover their housing costs, and entire neighborhoods have lost their affordability. In the wake of this crisis, Bloomberg, the billionaire business magnate who championed everything from the environment to healthy eating, stepped down last fall and was replaced by New York City Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, who has pledged to tackle NYC’s housing affordability crisis and growing”economic and social inequalities.”

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"Transparency was a big message throughout the program," Production Glue executive producer Jennifer Kurland said of the decision to use a clear-sided tent. The hashtag #TalkingTransition was displayed to encourage passersby to join the conversation online. Photo: Brooke Cassidy/BizBash

Launched on November 9th - only four days after De Blasio was elected, the Talking Transition program invited New Yorkers to come together online, in the streets, and in a central “think tent” to inform the priorities of the new administration. 

It was the brainchild of Christopher Stone, President of the Open Society Foundations, and the project was funded by ten civic-minded foundations — from the New York Women’s Foundation to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. According to Stone, the project would allow regular citizens - instead the usual suspects like wealthy lobbyists and think tanks - to have their voices heard:

"(Electoral) transitions tend to be relatively closed processes, inviting committees to put some policies together. Sometimes it results in policy papers being presented to the new mayor, and I’m not sure they delivered a lot of value…… I’ve often thought it would be nice to have a more open process, a bigger tent, and a more public process. For the Open Society Foundations, it has a broader connection to the work we do, seeing how we can extend participation in democratic processes beyond the voting booth."

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NYC Youth participate in a collaborative mural design process in the tent. Photo: Groundswell

The 500-person-capacity tent was built on a lot that once hosted Occupy Wall Street marchers. During construction, on-site workers stayed tight-lipped about the project when talking to curious passersby. “We tried to pass it off as affordable housing,”joked Schlesinger.

The project ran for three weeks. Although it included street teams canvassing the five boroughs, most activity was centered around the tent in downtown Manhattan. It became a hive of activity, hosting panel discussions on public policy issues and offering many other opportunities for visitors to let their voices be heard. At iPad stations, people could take an online survey that allowed them to answer questions about their neighborhoods and other topics.  New Yorkers could also share their opinions by filling out stickers color coded by topic and placing them up on the space’s pltboard walls. A youth-led art making workshop was held. There were film screenings and performances by New York artists. There was even a “soap box” for people to stand on and express their ideas to the crowd.

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Photo: Brooke Cassidy/BizBash

During its run from November 9-23rd, 2013, the tent saw more than 10,000 visitors pass through, and the overall program had more than 50,000 survey respondents with 300,000 questions answered. ”Some questions were easy to answer, other were not,” said Schlesinger. “For example we had questions like, ‘How is your ability to lead the life you want?’”

During the program’s final week, De Blasio himself eventually showed up at the tent. While not directly involved in Talking Transition, he fully embraced the event and its goals. “I think a lot of times the best solutions are grass roots solutions,” De Blasio said during his visit. “Some of the power of Talking Transition is that it opens the gates of city government, lets everyone come in with their ideas, their insights. And yeah, it will be a lot of data, but I think we’re going to find some very powerful ideas in it.”

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Photo: Picture the Homeless 

At the end of the initiative, a full report with the data collected during the project was sent to the De Blasio administration; however, one of the challenges remains in getting his administration to actually read and act on the recommendations in the report.

"The administration is not yet prepared to use the feedback. I think at that point, it may have been too early in his time as mayor…translating the ideas into his agenda was a leap," said Schlesinger. "Our lesson learned is to think ahead of time how to grasp the info and feed it into the administration."

De Blasio still has three and a half years to review and potentially implement the feedback contained in the report. And with responses from 50,000 New Yorkers, he should probably pay attention. According to Stone:

"We didn’t know if anybody would come, and we’ve engaged 50,000 people, in a jurisdiction of 8 million, in serious conversation in just a few weeks. It’s been beyond our hopes."

Perhaps most importantly, according to Schlesinger the majority of participants engaged in the project - 60 per cent of the 50,000 respondents - did not vote in the last election. Through the Talking Transition program, tens of thousands of people were inspired to get involved in city issues for the first time, which could enhance civic engagement overall (maybe even increase voter turnout the next time around). Not bad for a temporary tent. Don’t be surprised if you see more cities pitching “think tents” soon.

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Photo: Picture the Homeless