Simplifying civic engagement in San Francisco

There’s no app for that

There’s no convenient way for the average San Franciscan to get involved in city politics. Trust me, I’ve tried. I applied to city boards and commissions only to have the application hearing scheduled over my classes in Berkeley. I engaged with the local Democratic Party only to learn that I was either too young, too new, or too far back in a line of succession that’s known only to those near the front. But my barriers — namely, being a student and having a history with mental illness — are tiny hurdles in comparison to the walls facing those with young kids, day and night jobs, and seemingly endless commutes.


City Hall is too complex, too controlled by cliques, and too inconvenient to provide average San Franciscans with a meaningful chance to make a difference in local politics. The city doesn’t need an app to remedy this issue, but it does need to launch some updates to make it easier for San Franciscans of all sorts to get involved.

It’s probably easier to explain Harry Potter to someone than to detail the ins and outs and who’s who of City Hall. Given this complexity, it’s easy to see why people opt to give their undivided attention elsewhere. More residents can likely name every past and present Democratic candidate for president (including Tim Ryan) before they can name their supervisor.

It’s not that residents don’t care about the state of the city — everyone is fired up about something within the city’s authority to change, from parking to public safety; it’s just that residents don’t feel they can change anything.

In a city as complex as the wizarding world, residents find it simpler to sit on the sidelines. Finding out when, where, and how to get involved in city affairs presents search costs that stop people from even considering applying to a board or commission or showing up at a Board of Supervisors meeting. That’s why more city meetings and engagement opportunities should occur on a rotating basis in different districts. There are few substantive reasons why Board of Supervisors meetings could not alternate their meeting location and alter their starting time to give working individuals a real shot at making their voices heard. In the same way, city initiatives could solicit much more feedback by hosting joint community sessions that make it easier for residents to interact with a wide range of city actors and agencies at once. These are small logistical changes that could make a huge difference for people right on the edge of participation.


The city should also follow the lead of communities around the world in more proactively soliciting resident feedback. For example, Madrid empowers residents to crowdsource ideas to improve the city on the digital Decide Madrid platform. Once a certain number of residents have backed a specific idea, it goes to the government for consideration. The same process is used to provide residents with a greater say over the allocation of tax dollars. The Governance Lab at New York University refers to these sorts of platforms as CrowdLaw, “the practice of using technology to tap the intelligence and expertise of the public in order to improve the quality of lawmaking.”

For a domestic example, look to Utah, where Politicopia provides residents with a wiki-based source of information on bills before the state legislature as well as a way to directly provide feedback for their legislators to consider.

These tools don’t have to be fancy, just functional. If they can cut the time it takes to understand an issue and get involved in its resolution, then it’s a step forward from the status quo. It’s true that these tools come with costs, but the benefits of having an engaged public are far more important. For the many San Franciscans who like to complain about their tax bills, the chance to get meaningfully involved in the city will help them realize that taxes aren’t penalties but investment in the city they call home.


Navigating City Hall should not feel like getting through a magical maze with ever-changing hoops and hurdles. Officials should recognize that their job isn’t to reinforce their own power but to devise new ways to share it with residents. By lowering barriers and increasing participation, city government can become more than just something people complain about.

Send feedback to [email protected]. Follow Kevin Frazier on Twitter @KevinTFrazier

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