Experiments in Civics and Cognitive Therapy

Posted on October 2, 2011


I think we’d all do a lot better if we approached our interactions with government as more of a scientific experiment in optimism vs. pessimism. That’s my hypothesis anyway. I know that sounds unexciting and dispassionate, but unbridled passion can lead one astray. The scientific method was drilled into me at the beginning of every science class from grade school to college. If I remember correctly, it involved:

  1. Forming a hypothesis–a possible explanation of observed phenomena.
  2. Testing the hypothesis through recorded observations of controlled experiments.
  3. Repeating those controlled experiments.
  4. Using the results of those experiments to form a theory.
Here’s my hypothesis: calling the city to notify them of gang graffiti will result in cleanup of said graffiti. It worked once before; why not repeat the experiment to see if it works again?

My experiment was inspired last Friday, September 23, as I strolled by Williams Avenue Park in the morning and observed what looked like a gang tagging. I won’t get into the specifics of the content; suffice it to say that I think that topic is best pursued offline.

Williams Avenue Park was a neglected dumping ground when I first moved here in 2004. Last summer and fall, a group of Williams Avenue residents, the Facebook group Playsafe Lynn and the East Lynn Community Association sponsored 2 cleanups, a movie night and a bulb planting. For the first time in years, the city stationed several summer youth counselors to provide games and activities for the neighborhood kids and erected a new fence. A new playground structure may be in the offing. (Alas, this summer, I did not see any counselors)

Many people have put in a lot of work into resurrecting this park. It looks as if it may be sliding back into the hands of decay and neglect.

To get back to the experimental model, following are my recorded observations. I admit I do not have a control group.

  1. 9/23/11 – visited city website to look up graffiti hotline. Gave it a call, but did not get through by following the instructions displayed on the web page. Filled out and submitted the feedback form instead.
  2. Called my Ward Councillor, Darren Cyr. Left message.
  3. Emailed two people in the Williams Ave. neighborhood who spearheaded the cleanup last year. Reply from Eliana Runyon, who is on the board of the ELCA. She expresses desire to fix and will follow-up.
  4. 9/26/11 – Decided to give the hotline another try. Figured it out this time! What the instructions do not say is that you need to press 2 at the first prompt before you can press 8 at the second to reach the hotline. I leave a message and almost immediately receive a call from a polite woman (forget her name; should have written it down then and there.) who wants to make sure she understands the location. She informs me that the DPW passes information obtained by the hotline onto the Essex County Sheriff’s Office. They have a machine that can remove graffiti.
  5. 10/1/11 – walked by Williams Ave. park. Graffiti is still there. Still no response from Ward Councillor.

The results of this experiment: inconclusive. That is, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, such as Darren is ignoring me or the Sheriff’s Office must be too busy to bother with such a small park. Not enough information yet. In the past, Darren has acted on my behalf but not gotten back to me in what I would consider a timely manner. I don’t think a week with no action or response is unacceptable. Still, I’ve heard it said that immediately removing graffiti is the best way to deal with it. (For readers wondering about the cognitive therapy angle, “jumping to conclusions” is a cognitive distortion  that may contribute to depression.)

The results of this one experiment are inconclusive thus far, but I can’t help but start to formulate a theory that an experimental approach like this might not only increase the mental health of a city’s residents, but force city and county officials to be held more accountable.

I dare to make this statement because I’ve learned that writing things down and recording details helps one build a case. In the field of social work, if you don’t write and keep records of what you learn in interviews about a client, grave mistakes can be made down the road. Documentation is so important that beneficial social programs can and should be stopped so that caseworkers can catch up with it. What is learned about a client at the beginning of the intake process can have devastating consequences if it is not passed on to social workers downstream.

If you’re part of a neighborhood crime watch, it is critical to write your observations of any criminal activity and pass them on to the authorities. More and better information leads to successful arrests.

Many local experiments in government responsiveness are in progress or have already taken place. The one I keep returning to as a textbook example is the amazing progress made on improving the safety of the Central Square Commuter Rail Station downtown a couple of years ago. Here are some others:

Because We’ve Come so Far (a little public shaming)

Tons of Empty Storefronts…Well sort of

Dropout Rates by Selected Population III: SES

Just remember to control for variables. The variable with the most influence I can see is that it’s an election year. Don’t forget to vote.




Posted in: local government