With Emanuel’s crowdsourcing, do we need as many Aldermen?

Around the time Rahm Emanuel took office in Chicago, news began to permeate throughout the press that the new Mayor was considering trimming the number of City Council seats in half, from 50 Aldermen to 25 Aldermen. With a city facing a mammoth budget deficit of $635 million, Emanuel had mentioned along the campaign trail that many people had wondered aloud why Chicago needed 50 Aldermen when similarly large cities such as L.A., Houston and Philadelphia operate with far less.  Chopping the Council in half won’t solve all of the city’s financial problems. Yet a new online outlet set up by City Hall made me ask what might amount to a silly question to some, but so be it:

If an online forum set up by City Hall, Chicagobudget.org, enables Chicago’s citizens to voice their ideas right to the source where those ideas can be effectively heard, shared and responded to, why do we need as many Aldermen whose primary job it is to do that? 

In case you aren’t familiar, in late July, the Mayor launched a budget idea website called Chicagobudget.org that enables residents to engage with City Hall by providing suggestions on how the city can save money. The rest of the online community can see these ideas and vote them up or vote them down.

Not long after, many people whose ideas were submitted were shocked to pick up a phone and hear, “Hello, this is Mayor Emanuel,” with the Mayor eager to discuss their ideas in greater detail. Skeptics may call this all a show, but legit or not, let’s not pretend there isn’t a degree of showmanship in politics anyway. It fueled enthusiasm and credibility for the site that yes, the Mayor is reading and if your idea is worthwhile, he’ll be calling you.

While the site focuses primarily on financial ideas, I believe Emanuel has uncovered an excellent opportunity to expand the crowdsourcing application of the website to other areas of Chicago – crime, park development, housing, transportation, volunteering and more. This Summer, I wondered in another post why Chicago couldn’t become the country’s most connected city between City Hall and its constituents, at least in a social media sense. Emanuel’s effort here is a great step in that direction and provides a crowdsourcing model for other cities to follow. It’s so successful in my mind that it begs the hard but viable question about the city government outlets in Chicago that may not be as relevant to the people as they once were. A study late last year by the Better Government Association suggests that cutting the City Council in half would save a little over $7 million alone, before we even get to the positive impact on savings it would have for operations and election expenses. It doesn’t erase $635 million, but it’s a start.

At the moment, a law drafted in 1941 says Chicago must have 50 wards. But I think a few things have changed in this town since 1941. Including the latest ward boundaries and the advent of the Internet as a communication tool.

Who knows, perhaps going around the Council straight to the people is the Mayor’s endgame all along. I haven’t had a a conversation with him and it’s not like he would admit it anyway. But let’s face it. What you have here is a social media mechanism in which people can not only express themselves straight to City Hall but in front of the city in general for great exposure. Sure, maybe it’s still their style to ring up the Alderman or trot down to his or her office. But come on. Even if they get a response, the stage here for their ideas and questions is bigger. It’s a smart political move to open up the dialogue in this manner and it’s a smart social media move to bring the community that much closer. We don’t have to point to things we don’t like in this town and say, “Somebody should really do something about that.” You don’t like it? Here’s the site. Type away. Get it front of the people who can do something about it.

The phone’s ringing so I’d better take this. Might be the Mayor calling.

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3 thoughts on “With Emanuel’s crowdsourcing, do we need as many Aldermen?

  1. Pingback: Advertising on Architecture? Now You’re Reaching, Rahmbo. « Chicago Brander

    • Well, we know the price of the current representation and it’s hefty. What’s more, it may not even be reflecting our city accurately in terms of Alderman-to-population ratio. New York, a substantially larger city, has a grand total of 1 more city council seats than Chicago. L.A.? Houston? Philadelphia? Dallas? No more than 20. Fewer Aldermen. Fewer staffers to support those Aldermen. Fewer elections that cost money. Meanwhile, give people online tools and streamline access to making real change so that they are actually engaged beyond casting a ballot (even that doesn’t always happen). When you have that potential for greater involvement combined with a potential savings of efficiency – in government, imagine that – these are important questions worth raising and exploring.

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