Jiaqi Dong
Jiaqi Dong

A better engagement strategy and facilitation on the public problem-solving process with a visionary thought of preparing future public problem solvers.

By Jiaqi Dong

Promote an open, accessible, equitable, and safe environment for public participation and collective intelligence.

Today, the application of technology has advanced the forms of public participation, by providing citizens better participation experience in terms of convenience, efficiency, openness, and privacy. People with different backgrounds start discussions as well as debates and provide insights from different perspectives to spark innovation.[1] While leveraging technology allows us to reach more people, we need to acknowledge that the application of technology is still biased to allow us to hear from different groups.

People with real needs are still too hard to reach in a digital era,[2] for example, the online discussion forum. Traditional public engagement forms such as in-person workshops, interviews, and focus groups can better involve people with less access to digital devices and the internet; multilingual problem descriptions and interpreters can help people speak different languages better understand the problem and address their opinions; a well-designed website with accessibility functions can allow people with disabilities to participate as well. For example, the Census 2020 campaign is well-designed despite the impact of COVID-19. Online advertising with different languages on social media, print posters around the neighborhoods, in-person introduction, and even the message in the fortune cookie from the local Chinese restaurant takeout helped to reach a broader audience. Though the online survey is encouraged, there still exists mail-in options and phone surveys.

In addition to mass public participation, an expert network will greatly help with problem-solving. We want to connect with the expert that we know in this problem-solving process, expand our network through these connections and discover more experts in the crowd to learn from their expertise, especially what worked and what didn’t work in their past experience.[3] It will help us avoid falling into the same trap at different problem-solving stages.

Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge the public contribution to the policymaking process. We need to let the public know that we extremely value their help in the problem-solving process, maybe through a monthly project progress update with a thank you section, and how we used the information to form the solution, such as publicizing the aggregated survey result.

Provide a clear challenge statement and help facilitate the definition of an actionable problem to make an actual impact. [4]

A public problem is usually complex because of the dimensions involved in the urban context, which could range from history, culture, infrastructure designed, existing policy, accessibility and etc. Public participation in problem definition exposes us to various reasons why a problem exists and rules out root causes. However, we need to find an actionable one to take the hands-on, especially given very time and budget constraints. Sometimes the public is willing to help but they need a more clearly defined and framed challenge to apply their knowledge in technology and creativity to solve it. When the citizens see they are making an actual impact, they will be more motivated and fulfilled.

A good example will be the NYCx Co-Labs, a civic innovation program. It bridges the government agencies, industry partners, and the public to create a solution to urban issues. For instance, for the Housing Rights Challenge, the lab-created a comprehensive challenge manual [5] to provide the context, and market analysis, and provided feedback on the team’s problem definition and implementation.

Invest in curating open content for public knowledge and highlight problem-solving skills in the education system to prepare for the future.

In many corporate settings, there is a crucial component of the Human Resources (HR) department called “Training and Development” which provides employees with abundant educational resources and opportunities to further their careers and allows employees to take leadership roles in the future without a high talent acquisition cost.

If we apply a similar visionary approach in the public problem-solving process with public participation, preparing the next generation of public problem-solving talents will enable us with a larger intellectual capacity in either near or far future. For example, the GovLab has a series of videos of experts introducing how to leverage data science and analytical thinking in the public interest.[6] In the higher education field, a lot of interdisciplinary programs have emerged in the past few years to teach students to solve real-world problems.[7] No matter people learn the public problem-solving toolkit from a public portal or through formal education, they will be more prepared for and open-minded about tackling societal problems. Also, they will be able to build more collaborations and partnerships in micro scales in the problem-solving process, and thus create a stronger network to empower the society.

Jiaqi Dong is a Master’s Candidate for the Class of 2021 at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress.

(Source: NYCx Co-Labs - https://www1.nyc.gov/html/nycx/housingchallenge/challenge )


[1] Carbon, Joseph DeSimone (2016). Real Innovation is Multidisciplinary. Standford University. http://ecorner.stanford.edu/in-brief/real-innovation-is-multidisciplinary/

[2] The Reach Project. University of Toronto. https://munkschool.utoronto.ca/program/reach-project/

[3] Malina, Emily & Shuler, Kara (2013). What Darwin can teach government. Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/what-darwin-can-teach-government-harnessing-positive-deviants-to-help-solve-vexing-problems-within-your-organization.html

[4] Fisher, Jonny (2020). Running an Innovation Challenge: the Ultimate Guide. Idea Drop. https://ideadrop.co/innovation-challenge-ultimate-guide/

[5] NYCx Co-Labs (2020). Housing Rights Challenge Manual. http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycx/documents/ChallengeManual_Housing.pdf

[6] The GovLab. Solving Public Problems with Data. http://sppd.thegovlab.org

[7] Noveck, Beth (2019). Public Entrepreneurship and Policy Engineering. Communications of the ACM. https://medium.com/@bethnoveck/public-entrepreneurship-and-policy-engineering-6995429406d1