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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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.