How are new communication technologies redefining the form and function of governance? How can we mature these tools to more effectively enhance service delivery, improve the outputs of policymaking, and expand access to the political process?
On Monday, we were privileged to host ‘Citizen 2.0: Social Media and the Future of Participatory Government’ to discuss these topics and, as it turned out, quite a bit more. Recognizing that ‘open government’ and ‘Gov 2.0’ have yet to reach their full potential in practical applications, our expert panel and highly engaged audience sought to articulate why this was and what we can do to realize the opportunities ahead. From the nature of participatory government to issues of digital divide and access to education, we discussed how to evolve a governance system that isn’t just different, but better.
Each panelist brought a unique and important perspective. Nancy Scola of Personal Democracy Forum’s techPresident began with a strong philosophic overview of the current state of the open government movement. She reminded us that our forms of government have always been a human experiment, and encouraged risk-taking in seeking improved models of civic relations. A transcript of Nancy’s thoughtful presentation can be found here.
Ryan Brack of the New York City Department of Education joined us as our government representative. A recognized ‘super-user’ of new communications tools within the Bloomberg administration, he brought a unique perspective on government’s changing role in the new information landscape. Despite the challenges of being on the receiving end of a ‘communications firehose’, Ryan discussed City’s various efforts to better filter, manage, and thus respond to incoming citizen inputs.
For any tool to drive substantive improvements, it must be easily adoptable by those it targets. This is a point Marci Harris knows well. A former Congressional staffer, Marci has now launched POPVOX, a platform to expand public engagement in the congressional policymaking process. Advised by Tim O’Reilly, POPVOX improves citizen to legislature interactions by ensuring civic input is collected and heard in those critical windows when it can have the greatest impact.
Looking abroad, Katherine Maher of the National Democratic Institute reminded us that many of the most exciting ways technology is changing governance are happening outside the US, and are not particularly high-tech. Katherine’s work in using information and communication technologies to improve civil society has taken her through Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, often using the most basic mobile and radio technologies. Her perspective was timely, given recent events in North Africa and the Middle East.
Tom Lee of Sunlight Labs rounded out the panel. A respected leader in the open government community, Tom addressed some of the challenges this community faces in trying to move Gov 2.0 forward. He reminded us that sophisticated technology won’t be able to solve many of the biggest problems with representative government. Rather, poor education and lack of access to information will need to be addressed through other means if traditionally marginalized groups are to gain greater political representation.
Our panel painted a rich picture of the challenges and limitations facing the use of new media in government. The second half of the event focused on developing solutions to address these challenges. Panthea led our group, roughly 100 strong, through ‘Product in a Box’, an exercise that works to generate concrete ideas for products and services.
Panelists and audience alike worked in groups focused on predetermined and audience-selected themes such as healthcare, political engagement, and urban social services. It was great to see Ryan, from NYC’s Department of Education, working with the Education group on ideas his department could implement to improve their work. Likewise, at the Policymaking table, Marci received some impassioned opinions on how products such as POPVOX could better meet citizen needs.
Here’s a small sample of some of the concepts put forward:
Urban Decider – The urban social services team mocked up a product to allow citizens to ‘argue with your neighbor, constructively’. Users can submit, view, discuss, and vote on issues by neighborhood via a web platform. Through social media integration, they can also share issues, discuss issues in greater depth, and input into public cost/benefit analyses. Those seeking to get more engaged can also find out, donate to, or volunteer with featured organizations working on the particular issue. Developed by two urban planners, two community organizers, and a software developer, Urban Decider allows communities to input and gain greater context on their shared concerns.
Wait Wait… Do Tell Me! – This ingenious product would help citizens find the ‘lull in the line’ by analyzing real-time usage data for popular government services. Based on real-time analytics collected from government departments such as the DMV, citizens can access the latest information (via web, SMS, a hotline, or a mobile app) on the lowest-traffic days and times for particular services. Citizens can also schedule appointments via the service, and their activity would help agencies more accurately anticipate demand and plan resources (ie. staffing) accordingly.
Help’d – This idea was for a rating and feedback system (a la popular consumer review site Yelp) for government agencies, directly linked to citizen-submitted support tickets. Users can track their submitted issues (or subscribe to others they care about) at each step of the process, rate government service at each step of the resolution process, and evaluate overall satisfaction with the relevant agencies. Aggregated citizen feedback then helps government assess where improvements are needed in their workflows, allowing for more granular process transparency and overall accountability.
Those involved in designing the governance systems of the future would do well to consider both the challenges raised by the panelists and the needs and visions revealed by the product concepts. In thinking through how to address the issues articulated, we at Reboot have found it useful to identify several ‘platform requirements’ for future governance systems: trust, accountability, efficiency, (some) transparency, accessibility, feedback and authority. While seemingly obvious, careful consideration of each requirement — and of the interplay and tension between them — is necessary to improve the transactions between citizens and the institutions that serve them.
Though each service or offering will necessitate a different recipe of the above traits, getting each mix right will enable services, programs, and systems that are inclusive, sustainable, and self-improving. You can read a bit more about our thinking on this topic here.
All told, it was an insightful discussion. We’re thankful to our panelists and attendees for their enthusiastic contributions. In the weeks ahead, we will be distilling and packaging the ideas into a set of publications that will be available here on theReboot.org.
One final note: We had promised a video archive of the event. Unfortunately, the Social Media Week broadcast partner, Livestream, lost some of the recordings due to a technical workflow issue — sadly, our file was one of them. Sincere apologies for this.
All photos courtesy of Martha Bixby who graciously volunteered to photograph the event.