Since its recent groundbreaking event, Civinomics’ online users are posting their own civic initiatives for the community to vote on. Where will digital governance take Santa Cruz?
Just three weeks after Civinomics launched a well-attended local public event dubbed “Civinomicon” at its Cruzio headquarters, the fledgling startup in Downtown Santa Cruz finds itself boldly moving forward with a unique mission to drastically modernize civic engagement. Its two founders, Manu Koenig and Robert Singleton, both in their twenties, describe their endeavor as “an experiment in digital governance,” but if their early signs of success are any indication of the possibilities that lie ahead, the “experiment” may generate a variety of new and, perhaps, different, kinds of civic conversations locally.
Think of Civinomics as a social website, similar to Facebook and Twitter. It is designed for users to author and post civic initiatives, share information, challenge or promote each other’s ideas, and vote. By sharing empirical, data-driven evidence, debating pragmatically, and quantifying public opinion through the voting feature, Civinomics aims to produce community-driven ideas that can be easily transferred to local leaders and driven into action faster than ever before.
“Our founding fathers gave us the powerful idea that government is ‘Of, By and For the People,’” says Koenig, a Corralitos native and alumnus of Stanford University. “In other words, government is something we create through our participation, and it is something we have every right to reinvent.”
Singleton, an alumnus of UC Santa Cruz and from Sonoma, says that Civinomics takes advantage of the fundamental advances in information technology, and plugs it into the system of governance. The broader concept is to create a more educated and empowered citizenry.
“We used the Internet to mimic a process that used to take hundreds of hours of organization to do, which is provide people with a place to suggest and vote on new ideas,” he says. “With a tool like Civinomics, a community organizer, politician or even neighborhood group leader can quickly get a pulse on how their constituency feels about a given idea or problem, and see how that can change all in real time. The only recourse to truly understand how people feel, in order to hold the government accountable, is voting.”
Since Civinomicon, initiatives and users on the website have proliferated. Last month, there were about 650 registered users, but on Tuesday, Dec. 3, they broke 1,000 members.
In addition to “Ideas,” “Discussions,” and “Workshops,” which are tabs users can post under, 28 civic initiatives have been published. As users post questions and weigh in, the viability of the initiatives begins to take shape—promoting constructive dialogue—and, as people vote, the initiatives with the most support rise to the top.
Currently, most initiatives’ number of votes range between just a few and up to about 50.
“Our goal is to get at least 100 votes on the top initiatives,” Koenig says. “And I think when we get into the thousands of votes on these things, it’s going to get quite interesting. Because it’s going to be a real barometer for city government or county government on what projects to engage in.”
If the public begins casting that many votes on Civinomics, local government “can’t not look,” he says.
On the last day of Civinomicon, Sunday, Nov. 17, Zach Friend, District 2 Supervisor, was the keynote speaker. He told the audience that he viewed Civinomics as an opportunity for government representatives to connect in a more positive way with their constituents. Friend pointed out that about 80 percent of the communications being sent to the County Supervisor’s office are negative, representing disapproval or concerns by the citizenry, Koenig recalls.
“We’re trying to develop a way to communicate more public opinion about positive changes to our officials,” Koenig writes in an email. “[For example, what do we want done and how do we want it done? This will help government leaders] get back to addressing the ‘important’ rather than the ‘urgent’ and help them understand the parameters for solutions acceptable to the majority of the community.”
On the first evening of Civinomicon, Friday, Nov. 15, attendee Jane Weed-Pomerantz, the president of Positive Discipline Community Resources and a former Santa Cruz mayor, shared her insights on the Civinomics system.
“What better way to accomplish the kind of social change we’re seeking than through creating a more engaged community through successful discourse and deliberation of dialogue on the common issues we’re facing in Santa Cruz,” she tells Good Times.
Take note of the following four examples of various initiatives that Civinomics users have posted online, how they have outlined their ideas, how they would like to see them implemented, and how much they would cost.
#1 Water Shortage One prominent environmental initiative, authored by local green architect Marilyn Crenshaw, is for the City of Santa Cruz to offer “Blue Rebates” for Santa Cruz homeowners who implement “water infrastructure upgrades.”
Crenshaw, who helped implement the now-statewide Green Building Program for the City of Santa Cruz, bases her initiative on a policy she learned about while attending an international water conference six years ago in Australia. Australian communities faced major drought problems for the 15 years leading up to that 2007 conference, she says, at which time jurisdictions finally began solving their water shortage problems.
In addition to building desalination plants and dams, Crenshaw says various Australian municipalities devised $30,000 rebate plans for each homeowner who built water collection, reuse and reclamation systems, which have diminished their threats of annual water shortages. She says the rebate expenses for the municipalities were far less costly than the industrial alternatives.
“The financial studies showed that it was a better deal for the local jurisdiction to have every individual home get water rehab by way of the latest and greatest [water-reuse] technology, and then the jurisdiction didn’t have to pay the annual municipal salaries that they would have on a desal plant or a dam,” Crenshaw says. “It was more cost effective and it solved the problem.”
Her initiative proposes that the city issue rebate bond measures in the amount of $900,000 to retrofit 100 homes with water recycling and rain catchment infrastructure. It would be a pilot program to prove cost effectiveness, and then eventually roll out for the approximate 15,000 total number of homes in the city.
Crenshaw’s initiative includes a social media campaign to get the community “fluent in water conservation” and creating an application for monitoring water savings, giving the overall project a price tag of $1 million. She also cites studies that say the average resident of a local home uses about 100 gallons of water per day. She says that if rebates allowed homeowners to implement infrastructure to reclaim just 27 percent of the total water used in their household, 50 percent of which is graywater—meaning no sewage—and can be used for landscaping, laundry, toilet flushing, and other non-drinking purposes, that the water deficit would be solved.
“Either by conservation tactics, graywater reuse, or by rainwater collection, we can far surpass the estimated 100 year drought shortfall of 27 percent (which was cited in the Desalination plant’s EIR),” Crenshaw’s writes. “We can create water abundance every year, we can recharge the aquifer, and set an example of new water policy to [all] USA jurisdictions.”
Crenshaw has been a close follower of Civinomics from its inception several years ago, prior to the website launch.
“I’m really intrigued by where that fusion point is between high tech communication on the Internet and sustainability,” she says.
In her eyes, “The whole point of Civinomics is that it does polling, so you don’t have to wait for there to be an official election and a ballot to communicate to your local political leaders and city managers on what you as a citizen think is a good idea. It’s quantifying public opinion.
“And, it’s not a big gathering in a public plaza where police are going to shoot you with a water hose—this is a civil, focused, literate, polite way to communicate,” she adds. “The Civinomics initiative system is a really good place to start a conversation—for anything.”
Koenig says part of the raison d’être of Civinomics is to harness the ideas and insights of the general public, who otherwise, in terms of civic engagement, are traditionally limited to the several minutes they are permitted for public comment during government meetings.
“Our ethos is kind of ‘All options on the table,’ and that ‘No idea should go undiscussed,’” he says. “For an issue like water, there’s no single solution. Our site can then facilitate the discussion of a variety of solutions, and allow those solutions to be more flushed out, voted for, and eventually acted on. The arguments for and against an initiative really drive things along because then people can go back and revise their ideas.”
For example, Bruce Daniels, who is on the board of directors for the Soquel Creek Water District, commented on Crenshaw’s initiative, writing that for three years there has been a rebate offer for graywater systems.
“[But] over that time, in spite of big efforts to publicize, promote, demonstrate, and support graywater, only two customers per year have taken advantage of these offers,” he says. “A graywater installation demands some serious choices and then real design effort to install. Graywater also constantly requires significant time and effort to properly use and to maintain. Thus people seem unwilling to bother. So unless you are willing to support mandatory rationing where people are forced to install and use graywater, this system may not be helpful here.”
#2 Public Safety About a week prior to Civinomicon, the Public Safety Citizen Task Force, which has been meeting for six months deliberating over ways to improve public safety, released its set of proposals for the Santa Cruz City Council.
Suzan O’Hara, who served as the Task Force’s coordinator and is a City employee, volunteered at Civinomicon as a facilitator for the Public Safety group. Eric Johnson, who participated in that group at Civinomicon, authored an initiative for the county that mirrors one of the Task Force’s proposals. It is titled “Expand Treatment Options for Substance Abusers Who Commit Crimes.”
Though Johnson kept up with the Task Force meetings, he says he became especially invested in the public safety dialogue after attending the memorial service last spring for the fallen Santa Cruz Police Dept.’s sergeant Loran “Butch” Baker and detective Elizabeth Butler.
“That’s what really drew my attention to this movement in the community to confront public safety issues,” Johnson says.
He says that, of the proposals from the Task Force, which were presented to the City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 3, the suggestion for a “Speciality Court” seemed like an especially important one.
The initiative would “dramatically expand the drug court for substance abusers, the mentally ill and homeless offenders, linking repeat offenders to wrap-around treatment by the County Health Services Agency and provide judicial monitoring.”
“It’s built on two things: offering these people assistance, but simultaneously holding them accountable,” Johnson says. “I think it would have a big impact on the property crime, besides the fact that it’s just morally the right thing to do.”
Johnson speculates that if many of these drug offenders can eventually attain health insurance through Covered California—or Obamacare—drug court rehab programs could secure funding through their coverage, though he is not certain whether it’s possible.
For the cost of the initiative, Johnson wrote $10 million, but admits that it was just a stab in the dark. He explains that the Civinomics site would not allow him to publish the initiative without a cost figure in that field, “So I just pulled that number out of the sky.”
Additionally, all of the Task Force’s public safety proposals have been posted by Singleton to Civinomics as a “Workshop” where people can discuss and vote on each of them.
Participating as registered “Listeners” on that workshop, in the manner that one might “follow” someone on Twitter, are the majority of the Santa Cruz City Councilmembers and one County Supervisor.
Koenig says he voted “no” on Johnson’s initiative.
“I didn’t feel there was enough information and also because I felt like the best way to get more info is to challenge the idea,” he says. “What I need more information about is how would treatment options be a substitute for prison time or not.”
#3 Election Policy City Councilmember Micah Posner says that the voluntary fundraising regulations for city council candidates rests on a slippery slope. So he and his intern, Marisa Parrotta, posted a Civinomics initiative that motivates candidates to abide by fundraising and expenditure caps.
“I’m hoping to build support for public financing and voluntary limits for campaign fundraising in the City of Santa Cruz,” he says. “I feel like our election culture is starting to get a little bit out of hand.
Currently, campaign fundraising and expenditure caps are voluntary, as is required by law.
For candidates who choose to abide, individual donation limits are set at $325 and $780 per organization. There is a $26,641 overall spending limit; however, in the last election, fewer than half the candidates adhered to it.
“I feel like it’s waste of money and it gives a certain advantage to people who are good fundraisers or have a connection to money,” Posner says. “People have respected the individual limits, but that’s just a choice people have made—there’s no teeth in the current ordinance. So, I’m concerned that the sort of respect people have for the individual limits could evaporate at any moment.”
“If we don’t create some ground rules that have some incentives, I worry that at some point people will be buying city council seats here in Santa Cruz,” he continues. “This is the time to put a better culture [around campaign spending] before it becomes corrupt.”
Posner’s initiative, which has a budget of $50,000, would charge the city to match funds in increments of $5,000 for candidates who agree to the overall expenditure limits.
Because of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it is unconstitutional to legally limit fundraising or expenditures, deeming it a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.
Posner’s initiative is merely a financial incentive for candidates to abide.
“You can have carrots but not sticks,” he says. “This is the public financing carrot approach for people who want to play by the rules.”
In a comment on that initiative, Erik Erikson, who volunteered at Civinomicon and works for UCSC, wrote, “In my opinion, this really needs to be exported to the national level. And that starts by showing that it can work at home.”
#4 Economic Vitality Inspired by a trip eight months ago to the Innovation Center of the Rockies (ICR), an entrepreneurial support organization in Boulder, Colo., Koenig wrote and posted an initiative for
the County titled “University Tech transfer and Regional startup Development Nonprofit.”
“People came back from that trip super jazzed, but nothing happened,” Koenig says. “It seemed that creating our own nonprofit with the same sort of style that they had in Boulder for a tech transfer was the natural next step.”
So, to reinvigorate that interest and gauge public support, Koenig published an initiative that would create an independent nonprofit to facilitate the transfer of technology from UCSC to new private companies based in the county, similar to the ICR. Its cost, which would amount to $150,000, would come as funding in equal parts from UCSC, the county, and local business sponsors. It would aim to work with five to 10 new tech companies every year.
“UC Santa Cruz is home to world-leading research in genomics, game design, big data and marine science. However, the university has struggled to turn innovative research into profitable companies,” Koenig writes in the initiative. “On a day-to-day level, the nonprofit’s role will be meeting with UCSC professors and grad students to evaluate the opportunity for commercial application of their research. It then seeks to connect the most promising research with a ‘Business Driver’ from its Advisor Network.”
In order to focus the nonprofit’s activities, it would take on only technologies and companies that have the potential to become “Primary Producers,” or, businesses for whom 90 percent of the customers are from outside the county and will therefore bring new revenue into the local economy.
One of the first people to post a comment detracting from Koenig’s initiative was Mesiti-Miller, a member of the Santa Cruz Chamber Board Executive Committee and who attended the trip to ICR with Koenig, writing that UCSC already has a similar program.
“It is my understanding [that] this basic idea is currently being explored [and] implemented in two parts by UCSC,” Mesiti-Miller writes in response. “Part one is the Center For Entrepreneurship (C4E), an existing organization that needs additional funding to become more effective, [and] part two is a program called ‘Springboard Connect,’ [which is] already in place at other UC campuses. These two programs need $400,000 to operate at adequate staffing levels for two years. I suggest those interested in getting more involved with one or both of these programs contact … UCSC. Rather than start something new, get behind one or both of the existing efforts already under way.”
Koenig, however, responds via comment to Mesiti-Miller that the nonprofit organization would have to be independent from the University.
“UCSC will need to have some staff for this, but UCSC alone cannot effectively manage the tech transfer process,” he writes. “One reason is that the university doesn’t have a sense of urgency, yet starting new ventures requires entrepreneurs make salary sacrifices and put in sweat equity. The university’s sense of timing can use up an entrepreneur’s lifeline. Regarding the current funding shortfall, this initiative tackles it by authorizing the county to allocate $50,000 as well as setting up an annual sponsor program. This initiative is collaborative with current university efforts—not competitive.”
Civinomics in Motion As the website acquires new members, initiatives go live and the number of votes goes up, Koenig says development, improvements and maintenance will be an ongoing process. This is what he and Singleton are calling the “deliberation phase;” the “discovery phase;” the “beta phase.”
“Basically, we’re in the testing stage,” Koenig says. “We know there are bugs and we’re fixing them. It’s been amazing how much feedback I’ve already gotten from users on the site and just being able to fix and improve things really quickly is exciting.”
The problems are minor, mostly pertaining to navigation tools and aesthetics, Koenig says.
The front page sign-up form looks somewhat similar to the log in, so some people have been accidentally making multiple accounts and then having to reset their password, which has been annoying for some. Koenig also says there will be some adjustments made to button sizes and some tabs to make certain features jump out more on the screen.
“It will all continue to develop,” he says. “We’re doing everything we can to make the experience easy for all users.”
One of the biggest features that the Civinomics team plans to implement on the site in the near future is the ability to crowd fund.
Each of the initiatives must be published with a budget. Koenig says that, once they develop crowd funding, a certain number of “Yes” votes would authorize bonds to come from the city or county to match the crowd-sourced funding.
Another important development that Koenig is looking forward to implementing is allowing multiple authors to contribute to a single initiative.
This will allow more people to take ownership and drive each initiative, he says.
They will also make adjustments so that it is more obvious how people can share their initiatives with other online users, just like sharing a post on Facebook, and tally how many shares an initiative has gotten.
Eventually, Koenig and Singleton would like to see Civinomics become active in other cities and counties. Santa Cruz, however, is the ideal place to initially conduct such an experiment.
Koenig says that if the community continues to participate here, Civinomics in Santa Cruz will serve as a great model to show other communities how effective the system is.
“We hope we create something that other communities can use too, so they can improve where they live,” he says.
Singleton explains that Santa Cruz was an excellent launch site for Civinomics because of its size and population, as well as its politically active and progressive community. It is the kind of place where the citizens would not shy away from a new way of engaging civically, be prone to working with each other, and happy to push the political envelope. But Koenig also makes the point that starting in Santa Cruz was a natural decision because it’s the place they both call home.
“We chose Santa Cruz because this is our community. I was born here and Robert went to school here and Chris [Neklason, co-founder of Cruzio and a principal in the startup] has lived here most his life,” Koenig says. “I think the drive to create Civinomics comes from our desire to improve our community—our hometown. Just like everyone else who participates.”
Learn more about Civinomics at civinomics.com.