Government 2.0: Paving the Way Toward a True Citizen Government?By Ian Schulte June 9, 2011
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Communities and officials are constantly looking for means to improve their structure, operations and cohesiveness. Recent projects such as digital arts collaboratives, online town halls and neighborhood crime watch platforms have begun to increase and intensify civic engagement.
Underlying these projects is a two-pronged belief: first, that community members can get interested enough in civic matters to actually do something and, second, that without explicit structure and hierarchical guidance, they can accomplish something meaningful as a result. While this has always been the case to some extent, recent technological advancements (particularly around mobile, open APIs, geolocation, and open data) have created an entirely new playing field for expanding civic dialog and civic participation.
Civic engagement has always been a difficult arena. People hold strong opinions regarding goings-on around them (and what could or should be done differently), but talk and action don’t always align. Sometimes it’s a matter of willpower; often, the larger culprit is that barriers to participation are too high – and the payoffs too low. Town hall meeting at 1:30pm on a Wednesday? Who could be expected to attend? Mail correspondence with a local official? The robo-signed form letter in response indicates that nobody’s listening, and probably doesn’t inspire a repeat attempt.
All of that is starting to change.
Civic entrepreneurs are creating frictionless ways for people to interact with information – and with others around them – and in the process, are fostering entirely new possibilities for community engagement. Simultaneously, they’re blurring the boundaries between government and citizens, and enabling interactions that look far more cooperative and dialogic than the norm – and more democratic, too.
Calling the New Libertarians
Rob van Kranenburg (founder of Council, the European Internet of Things think-tank) has noted that the Internet is creating a group of techno-libertarians who are informed, engaged, self-sufficient, and undeniably optimistic about the power of data and technology to effect positive change. They’re also builders, tinkerers – whatever you care to call them – and they’re addressing real needs and making their communities better in a variety of ways. Importantly, they’re changing the way people think about government, community, and their relation to both.
Some particularly effective examples include:
- SeeClickFix: Enables citizens to log maintenance issues (e.g., potholes, graffiti) and suggest improvements (e.g., new crosswalks, street lights) tied to specific addresses and GPS coordinates, which creates maintenance requests with relevant municipal authorities. Users are informed of issue acknowledgment and fulfillment, creating a strong evidence incentive for further participation.
- Localocracy: Takes the town-hall concept idea online, expanding access to local politicians, community members, and local debates among people who might otherwise be unable or disinclined to participate. A no-anonymity policy creates transparency and accountability, and helps promote open, informed, and civil dialog.
- Groundcrew: A real-time, map-based organizing platform that allows anyone or any group with a task or project (e.g., snow removal, pick-up sports games, volunteer projects) to locate people nearby and reach out to them via preferred social networks to invite their participation.
- There also exists a variety of apps that leverage open government data for immediately, daily useful purposes, like real-time bus trackers and neighborhood crime mapping. When government standardizes, opens, and frees data, you can be sure that someone will figure out an elegant solution for making those data usable and relevant to a broad audience. It’s also a step toward changing opinion from government as monolith to government as citizen – one group of people helping other groups of people. Hard to argue with that.
Screenshot of SeeClickFix web interface.
So what can we learn from these and other efforts?
- Empowerment matters. So does evidence of outcomes. People will participate if they think that their time and effort will amount to something.
- The principles of getting people involved in their communities might not be dramatically new or different, but technology lowers the barriers to participation significantly and creates an unprecedented ability to scale civic involvement.
- We need to think about government in a 21st-century way and push forward on making the government-citizen barrier increasingly porous. More than ever, individuals and communities are capable of organizing themselves and their resources (whether mental or physical) to accomplish many things, including functions traditionally associated with government. Whether government can easily transition to becoming one actor within a broader ecosystem of dialog, activity, and participants – or whether it will continue to function in strictly hierarchical terms – remains to be seen.
Header image courtesy of blmurch’s Flickr, (cc) some rights reserved.
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