Why Don't People Get Involved in NYC Civics?
A lot of people are on the edge of getting involved in New York City’s government, but something pulls them back—this includes most intelligent, resourceful, curious people. We are a polity of the disengaged, ruled by the infinitesimal fraction that shows up.
And since the inevitable consequence of this is compounding institutional decay, it’s important to reverse as soon as possible.
After speaking with many New Yorkers about this, I’ve found three broad psychological blocks that stand in the way of more talent entering the civic realm:
A lack of beginner’s mind
The error: people pick a civic goal that is too hard for them when first getting started, but they mistake the difficulty of the task for the general difficulty of getting involved at all.1
Why people commit the error: Many people assume that, because they’re a relatively smart person who does well at their job, they should be able to wrangle the city government. Something like, “Well, I’m a product manager at [some big tech company], of course I can figure out how to get the trash on my block cleared more regularly! What could that take, a day or two of emails?”
Would that it were so! The most likely result for our theoretical, overconfident citizen is radio silence from any agency they contact, or communication without any on-the-ground follow-up. The city government is both complicated and dysfunctional; while you might get lucky a few times, working for sustained change requires a different posture—strategic and psychological—than one-off bursts.
How to fix the error: If you’re first getting started, you should dial back your ambition until you think “this is trivial.” Pick something you can do pretty immediately. Then you’re ready to begin. Returning to the trash example above, that means: you should just go pick up the trash on your block. Buy a mechanical reacher/claw thing, some gloves, and some trash bags. Fill them up yourself. Put the full trash bag next to an extant wire-mesh trash basket. Do this once a week for a few weeks. Just like that, you’ve improved the lives of thousands of people, and you’ll find yourself slowly more invested in your community now that you’ve taken on some personal responsibility for it. From this point, you can escalate your efforts, but probably not before.
Whatever policy area you’re interested in, there is an “easiest thing you can do right now.” I was talking with a friend about this, and he called these “policy ladders.” You want to pick the lowest rung of your particular policy interest, and climb up from there. If you pick a rung that’s too high as your starting point, you’ll either fail to climb or you’ll strain your muscles too much.
Even titanic policy areas, like increasing housing, have low rungs. You can attend an open meeting of this group and listen to them talk about legislation and advocacy. You don’t have to say anything—just take it all in!
If you have a policy interest, but you’re not sure what the lowest rung of that policy ladder is, get in my DMs or email, and we’ll find out.
No cultivation of personal agency
The error: people assume someone else will or should do the work of maintaining the city, so they never do that work themselves. The result is that the work doesn’t get done.
Why people commit the error: When our theoretical citizen wanted to change something in their civic environment, their first instinct was to email someone to fix it. This isn’t surprising—there are people who are supposed to maintain New York City, and they have email addresses. This is also how we function in our private jobs, often with pretty good results.
But this approach to solving civic issues boils down to “how do I tell someone else to do it.” And, as I mentioned, those someone elses often—for many reasons—can’t or won’t do their jobs. Here the best answer is actually “I should just do it, and get my friends to help if possible. That’s the best short term solution.”
How to fix the error: Recognize that doing civic work yourself is both necessary and good. Necessary, because if you don’t do it no one else will. Good, because you cultivate the habit of fixing problems that you see. If you don’t cultivate a sense of true individual responsibility for your city, it will be much harder to make a material impact, and you will most likely not develop a habit of civic involvement.
No understanding of the civic structure
The error: People assume that they’re smart enough, and roughly understand the government enough, that they could parachute into the civic sphere if they’re really needed. This mindset could be summed up as “well, things aren’t yet apocalyptic—if it gets bad I can jump in and get up to speed.”2
Why people commit the error: in the case of New York City, people see that we have a mayor and a city council—a legislature and an executive—and they assume that’s about everything they need to know. They further assume that they could, without too much effort, learn about the whole city governmental system, or at least the part that’s relevant to them.
The reality is, almost no one understands the NYC government, not even the people in the city, most of whom don’t even vote. Ask the smartest person you know to provide a summary overview of the city government. You’ll first realize that you have no idea how to verify if they’re correct (what resource do you turn to?), and you’ll likely notice that your friend is not confident in their assessment at all if you ask any followup questions (really grill them on what and why a borough president is).
Without understanding the government in more detail, it’s also difficult to know where your time and effort would be best spent, and to evaluate whether advocacy groups you might join are spending their money and attention well.
How to fix the error: learn about the city government, learn by doing, and give yourself a while to do it! Slow and steady wins the race, just like learning almost anything else. If you try to do this all at once, you’re reaching for a rung that’s too high.
I could list a large amount of resources here to help you learn about the government, but in my experience that induces analysis paralysis more than anything. So here are three things you can do, plus a fourth if you have some free hours:
Join a civic organization that directly lobbies and interfaces with the government, and just go with the flow. B- effort is great, and you don’t have to be the leader. You’ll learn a lot over time. And, although “join a civic organization” sounds like a ton of work, the B- version boils down to “go to their website, attend a Zoom meeting where they discuss things, think about getting involved further.” Don’t know what organizations there even are? DM me. There’s loads, and even a few good ones!
Ask me to give you an overview (or follow Maximum New York). I’ll do it! You can stop me and ask questions, and I can point you to specific resources and civic groups you might be interested in joining. In the near future I’ll have a stand-alone overview you can peruse at your leisure.
If you want some emotional support, you can read about how my own feeling of “What the heck is going on??” led me to create a Roam graph of the city’s founding document, the city charter.
If you really just want some meat to chew on right now, you can go to my Maximum New York reading list. But if you think something like “oh no, where to begin!?” then get outta there! No analysis paralysis!
As I’ve written previously: “Would you try to bench press twice your bodyweight on day one of your strength regimen? Would you try to read Dostoevsky in Russian after one Duolingo lesson? Of course not. You’d be missing too many skills, and you’d only end up frustrated and defeated if you tried.”
Besides what I’ve written above, if you wait until it’s capital-B Bad to get involved, you’re too late. Complex systems like cities can fail slowly, and then all at once. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, etc.