Gov 2.0 goes local

How local governments are using technology to deliver smarter government.

Most people encounter government at the state and local level much
more often then they deal with Washington. Given historic lows in
trust or approval for federal institutions, governors and city
councils may appreciate that separation. But as citizens turn to the Internet for government data, policy and services, local governments are in the same boat with the feds when it comes to meeting demands online, and always with fewer resources.

As the Congressional midterm elections loom, the mainstream media
will inevitably turn to the federal government’s use of technology.
The national conversation on Gov 2.0 (to the extent it exists) will
focus on hybrid townhalls and campaigns, and how the White House is using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The application of open data and Web 2.0 technologies for governance likely won’t take center stage.

What remains under-covered, however, is the quiet evolution in the
use of technology to enable “local government 2.0.” That awareness could change this fall, given the elevation of open government to a plank of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign and independent Lincoln Chafee‘s
choice to run on an open
government platform
.

Regardless of the public discourse around Gov 2.0, which is too often hindered by jargon, one of the conclusions that can be drawn from HP’s recent survey of government IT professionals is that local governments both use and understand government 2.0.

Gov 2.0 Local: What is it good for?

The primary benefits of Gov 2.0 that IT professionals cite include improved e-services to the public, resident participation in government, and collaboration between agencies. That snapshot of Gov 2.0 evolution offers ample perspective on the challenges for Gov 2.0 at the federal level.

Cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Ore. and the
District of Columbia, have all been hailed in the media for
innovative use of open data, new urban mechanics, adoption of Open311,
and improved e-services. Promoting government transparency through technology is a leading topic of interest for local government officials, though implementation still lags that interest in many counties. Abroad, the growth of government 2.0 in Australia and development of open government in Britain are key case studies to watch, particularly data.gov.uk. Last weekend’s CityCamp in London drew
hundreds of citizens, technologists and government workers together to
talk about the next steps.

While some of the movement toward open government has been
catalyzed by White House initiatives, much of that innovation has
been driven by tight budgets and the availability of inexpensive,
lightweight tools for communication, collaboration and crowdsourcing.

If you watch the progression of Gov 2.0 initiatives around the
country and globe, it’s clear that collective action could be even
more important to cities, states and towns reeling from the
after effects of the Great Recession, particularly when the spigot of
stimulus money runs dry in 2011. As The New York Times reported this
summer, governments are going to extremes as the downturn wears on. As David Forbes wrote on his blog:

You need to read this
piece
on the drastic cutbacks some cities and states are enduring.
The list is a devastating one: school years cut to the bone, public
buses eliminated, police service reduced and in the above case, street
lamps gone dark.

It doesn’t end there. Camden, NJ is preparing
to close its libraries
, rural counties are unpaving their roads, and due to layoffs the Oakland Police Department announced a list of crimes, including identity theft, vandalism, grand theft and poisoning, they’ll no longer respond to (I’m opening bets on how long before a private security contractor is operating in Oakland). [Note: Links and emphasis included in original
post.]

The crisis in state houses will put even more focus on how state and local governments can do more for citizens with less resources. Successful cities are using social media as an inexpensive way to spread news about local government and learn what matters to citizens. Part of sustaining communities in the digital age includes investment, understanding and involvement in the dynamic online discourse.

We are more connected to our neighbors online than ever before. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 22 percent of all American adults have signed up to receive alerts about local issues like traffic, school events, weather warnings or crime alerts through email or text messaging. Some 20 percent of all adults have “used digital tools to talk to their neighbors and keep informed about community issues.”

These trends hint at the promise of innovation in this country that Tim O’Reilly wrote about last year. This approach to governance was:

… envisioned by our nation’s founders, a model in which,
as Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Joseph Cabel, ‘every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.’ In this model, government is a convener and an enabler — ultimately, it is a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.

Managing Manor

The epicenter for local government 2.0 innovation just might be a
little city in Texas, where a small town delivered a “Gov 2.0 makeover” to another community this September. Manor, sitting just outside of Austin, has grown rapidly in the recent decade as people migrate to its relatively inexpensive ranch homes and developments. Manor’s young chief information officer, Dustin Haisler, has inserted his city into the national conversation by turning Manor into a government technology petri dish. As a result of that work, last month Harvard honored Manor for its innovative approach to local government.

Initiatives deployed by Haisler include: an ideation platform that
uses game mechanics, open government data published online, creation
of an open source blogging platform, posting QR codes around town,
adding a Meraki wireless mesh network, and making extensive use of
social media.

“Empowering citizens to do great things for their community is an
amazing tool,” said Haisler at the GovFresh local government 2.0
conference
last month. “We wanted to do whatever we could to be
transparent in a meaningful way.” Haisler made a wide contribution to
enabling better local government through BetaCities, which provides
resources and context for city managers who’d like to follow the trail
Manor has blazed.

Haisler described BetaCities as an
iterative community, which will evolve as more lessons are shared.
“Gmail was in beta for years,” he said. “We’re going to be in beta
forever.” He’s since developed the idea further, sharing a Gov
2.0 Guide to a City Makeover
using open source, lightweight
technologies that empower citizens to “co-create government” with
officials and city employees.

The idea of a “government in beta” and open commons resonates with Beth Noveck, deputy White House chief technology officer for open government, who keynoted Manor’s Gov 2.0 conference. As she wrote in a
post at the White House open government blog:

Alexis De Tocqueville observed about 19th century America that: “In
towns it is impossible to prevent men from assembling, getting excited
together and forming sudden passionate resolves. Towns are like great
meeting houses with all the inhabitants as members. In them the people
wield immense influence over their magistrates and often carry their
desires into execution without intermediaries.” This can-do spirit is
in evidence today in the “Municipal Makeover” underway in Manor.

As Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America
Foundation, recently wrote, “cities are the world’s experimental
laboratories.” And what’s taking place in Texas is just one example of
the new efforts under way to build tools, train and organize
volunteers, and design programs for institutional innovation at the
local level.

In her post, Noveck listed a number of organizations that will be familiar to Radar readers, including: Open Plans, Civic
Commons
, and CityCamp.

Speaking in Manor, Noveck applied Clay Shirky’s notion of a “cognitive
surplus
” to the government realm, positing that a “civic surplus” of missed opportunities to empower citizens to reduce waste and become involved in their democracy exists.

Judging from the panels, conversations and platforms discussed in
Manor, Noveck may be on to something. Andrew Krzmarzick’s approach to
winning the Gov 2.0 revolution” may use the Alamo as a theme, but the ideas he recounts are applicable around the world: state and local governments can apply technology and civic participation to arrive at better outcomes.

Collaborative crisis response goes local

“The public will self organize using tools that are out there,”
said Greg Whisenant at the Manor Gov 2.0 event (Whisenant subsequently
considered approaches
to opening up government data streams
here at Radar). According to
Whisenant, the CrimeReports.com
citizen tips network has led to more than 122,000 arrests and more than
45,000 fugitives caught.

The trend of citizens using the web to communicate during emergencies is growing. At the national level, FEMA administrator Craig
Fugate
has been using social media to more effectively deliver on his mission to help communities before, during and after crises. “We work for the people, so why can’t they be part of the solution?” Fugate asked at the Crisis Congress this summer. “The public is a resource, not a liability.”

That’s also true at the local level. “Gov 2.0 happens when we stop shoveling money and start stacking ingenuity,” said Brian Humphrey at the Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit this summer. Humphrey started the @LAFD Twitter account for the Los Angeles Fire Department in 2006.

The use of collaborative technologies to collect crisis data and empower citizens to help one another was powerfully demonstrated to the world after the Haiti earthquake. It’s in that context and in more conventional crises that “citizens can become sensors,” said John Crowley at the GovFresh conference. Tools like OpenStreetMap, QR codes on paper maps, and Ushahidi can be put to use during emergency situations.

If you haven’t watched Crowley and others present on “crisis mapping
Haiti” from this year’s Where 2.0 conference, it’s worth the view:

All of these tools can empower a globally distributed society to help each other on the local level. To paraphrase the famous saying, we can now click globally, act locally. Just watch the amazing
time lapse of OpenStreetMap edits in Haiti in this video of Tim
Berners-Lee’s TED Talk on Crisis
Commons
:

New emergency management IT “engages citizens in a participatory
model with government,” Berners-Lee suggested. In fact, The federal
government is looking for feedback on that effort, as evidenced by the
U.S. Patent Office seeking
comment on a proposal to encourage the creation and distribution of
humanitarian technology
[PDF].

“This kind of innovation is not a ‘nice to do,’” said Robert
Greenberg, founder and CEO of G&H International Services, quoting
Noveck in Manor. “It’s a must-do for the sake of our democracy.”

Local government 2.0 in beta

The local effort won’t be easy, fast or without risks. We’re all in
open government’s beta period, when lessons from Web 2.0 can be applied to solving millennia-old problems. That’s a primary driver for Code for America, where the mission is to deliver better government through code.

If Gov 2.0 is the Internet boom, in 2010 it’s clear that it won’t be an immediate shift. The recent 2010 civic health report
from the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) offers context for
how and why all of that effort matters now to citizens:
people are stepping forward to fix their own problems and help one
another. Consider the story in USA Today of Herrin, Ill., a town taking care of itself. Citizens of Herrin are cooperating to get through the crisis caused by a major plant closing. The town is a microcosm of a post-industrial America in recession.

Collaboration and participation are key aspects of “We government” and open government, where a civic surplus of citizens’ passion, expertise and patriotism is put to work fixing their own communities.

“The most powerful force in American democracy is the connection between and among citizens,” said David B. Smith, NCoC’s executive director in a prepared statement. Civic life in America now includes
a digital component that allows people to share news and co-create in
unprecedented ways. What citizens and local government do with that
force is the next great question.

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  • http://govwin.com/index.php Jeff White

    Once again, O’Reilly Radar provides very in-depth and insightful view of Gov 2.0, and the localized use of social media by State and Local governments seems to be the next phase.

    State and Local governments can also enhance their procurement processes by being part of the more business-forward online networks that helps them align the most qualified contractors for their needs. While the “local government 2.0” movement is quietly gaining momentum, so too is the business revolution in online social networks for government.

  • http://stop.zona-m.net M. Fioretti

    This assumption that the LOCAL dimension of open government and open data is very, very important, is one of the bases of the research project on open data on which I’m working these days, see:

    http://stop.zona-m.net/node/175

    Anybody interested, please contact me at mfioretti, at nexaima, dot net

  • http://twitter.com/sarahebourne Sarah Bourne

    @Jeff, a chuckle escaped from me when I read that state/local use of social media is the “next phase”. When I went to the Gov 2.0 Camp Unconference in DC a year ago April, the local folks were the ones ahead of the curve, sharing information on how they were using these resources to provide better service to their citizens. The social media working group of the Federal Web Managers Council had a healthy share of members from state and local government, providing invaluable advice based on practical experience. Perhaps the next phase will be more awareness and credit for what state and local governments have been doing.

    In many ways, it’s a more natural progression for local government because there is already a culture of direct citizen involvement. I have a problem, I pick up the phone and call City Hall, or I send an email to Public Works. Adding the ability to tweet a pothole just doesn’t seem very remarkable, so it’s less likely to get a headline in the national press.

    Not that there’s not plenty of opportunity for growth in this area! Plenty of municipalities have yet to dip their toes in the 2.0 water. Open data offerings are going to be a challenge because the effort/cost of providing it will be in direct competition with core services, at a time when precipitous revenue drops have put budgets in crisis. 2.0 efforts that result in real dollars not being spent are going to gain traction more quickly than things that require money to be spent, no matter how lofty the vision.

  • http://e-democracy.org/sunshine Steven Clift

    Excellent in-depth review.

    If you are looking for Local Government 2.0 reports and the like, see the link from e-democracy.org/sunshine.

    We’ve indexed about 20 of them for our Sunshine 2.0 review on what local government -should- do, not just could do, to support democracy online.

    In terms of neighborhoods online, also see how this isn’t just for middle class urban homeowners: e-democracy.org/inclusion.

  • http://www.actionalexandria.org Tracy Viselli

    @Sarah, I couldn’t agree with you more. Lots of cities are doing innovative stuff that isn’t necessarily tied to sexy national projects and trends, so you don’t hear as much about them. The City of Alexandria, VA does a great job reaching out to its citizens through social media and is a partner in a project I’m working on that will focus on using the social web to do local problem solving. Communities and neighborhoods have been moving their organizations online for a while now and are looking for ways to do more. It creates an optimum environment for collaborative projects that include local governments, business, civic associations, nonprofits, and community foundations. Sometimes it’s not about the data so much as it is about providing a platform that empowers communities do what they are already doing–better.

  • Matt Snyder

    I’ll second @Tracy’s comment!

    Small related story – a few months ago, on my way home from work, I noticed a pedestrian walk signal at a dangerous intersection had been twisted sideways, making it look like people could walk when they shouldn’t. I tweeted a photo of it @DDotDC, and they tweeted back almost right away, and the next day they fixed it.

    Credit too to @DDotDC for their potholepalooza – they used social media for citizens to report potholes that needed fixed.

  • http://leanthinkers.blogspot.com RalfLippold

    Tim O’Reilly asks (via Twitter) for more stories around gov 2.0 on local basis.

    Even though my story is a few years old, I would like to share it.

    In 2002 the river Elbe rose up to 9.40 m (roughly 30 feet) from normal hight of 2 m, flooded large portions of the city of Dresden. Just a few days earlier the computer center of the city of Dresden had been flooded by a small river coming down from the mountains.

    I happened to become head of operation of the help coordination that sort of overtook the work of the city for a while. As a user of a Palm Pilot (m500) I started to put all addresses and relevant information into the device (in order to not being bound to be at the office to read the information on paper). After a few weeks the teams from the office were sprawling into the city. Supposed to have the relevant information with them, this would have required all material in paper to be taken.

    Fokusing on making the processes within the organization as easy as possible I managed to convince Palm Corp. to sponsor some Palm Pilots for the team.

    We organized that the files were transformed into eBooks and put on the Palms. This reduced the need of taking folders outside.

    The more visionary plan was to move this idea of making the process easier into the city council. However I moved in spring 2003 to BMW to build their new plant in Leipzig – where my experience from working with tools like the Palm and bringing new technology into action helped and was very much appreciated.

    Eight years later, the use of smartphones and mobile devices in the city government is by far not as widely spread as one could have thought from the quick start back in 2002.

    Traditional processes and assumptions of the workforce on how things have to be done in public institutions overtook the notion of making the processes just easier for the citizens, city workers and give economic value to the community.

    I wonder how are other people’s experiences around that,especially in the Web 2.0 age now?

    Cheers and best regards from Dresden, Ralf

  • Marie ORiordan

    no comment

  • http://www.crimealarms.org Samantha Hemmings

    Excellent in-depth review, and still so valid 9 months on. Having worked in local authorities now for over 10 years, I can tell you that there is a basic assumption that state and Local governments can enhance their procurement processes by doing more for the community, on issues of both business-forward online networks, and crime:

    http://www.crimealarms.org

    This has the effect to align even the most fiscal orientated contractors to the needs of the community, rather than just online social networks for government.

  • http://yurosie.blogspot.com Yurosie

    Perhaps the next phase will be more
    awareness and credit for what state
    and local governments have been
    doing.
    In many ways, it’s a more natural
    progression for local government
    because there is already a culture of direct citizen involvement.