Putting Technology to Work
When it comes to technology, a few things are clear. The Internet is no longer a new tool, and many cities are making good use of it. In this era of fiscal austerity, we are all working to do more with less. Cities are looking for ways to improve efficiency and make government more transparent. The Internet offers a wide range of opportunities to share information with our residents and engage them in the civic life of their community and local government decision-making.
The Demise of the Digital Divide
When cities first started communicating online with their residents, many city leaders expressed concern about the “digital divide” — the gap between people who had access to computers and those who did not. But the recent explosion of mobile and smartphone technology has dramatically changed the digital divide. Internet access no longer requires a desktop computer; smartphones now provide an easy way to connect. The popularity of this technology has made it increasingly pervasive.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (http://pewinternet.org), 88 percent of American adults have a cell phone, 57 percent have a laptop, 19 percent own an e-book reader and 19 percent have a tablet computer — and about 63 percent go online wirelessly with one of those devices. Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic Internet access are now using wireless connections to go online. The study also found that both African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos are as likely as non-Hispanic whites to own any sort of mobile phone and are more likely to use their phones for a wider range of activities.
This is good news for cities. But it raises the question: Are local governments making the best possible use of technology in service to their communities? Cities are using technology to communicate with residents in wildly diverse ways, from websites to social media to public safety smartphone applications. Some cities have enthusiastically embraced Internet technology, while others are more cautious. Let’s take a look at the thinking behind such caution.
Addressing Common Concerns
City officials considering the use of online technology cite a number of concerns, including the following.
Launching an online effort can involve a financial commitment, whether it’s less than $5,000 or upward of $10,000 — and our city’s budget is already tight. While this is a valid concern, it’s worthwhile examining which items in your city’s budget might be reduced or eliminated and replaced with an online service for a lower cost. For example, say my city is updating its General Plan and wants to invite public comment. This involves giving public notice to about 30,000 households. Using the traditional method of printing a postcard, affixing addresses and sending the cards out by mail can easily cost upward of $20,000. However, software packages and online services are currently available — some for no cost and others for significantly less than $20,000 — that would deliver the same results. As postal rates increase and more people use their phones as their primary means of communication, city officials should be thinking about how to use technology to maximize the effectiveness of taxpayer dollars that are spent on informing the public.
If we put our public information online, people will misunderstand or misuse it. In the wake of recent scandals around misuse of public funds by city officials, the need for local government transparency is greater than ever. One result of these scandals is a significant increase in requests from the public and the media for information. Posting information online that is frequently requested under the Public Records Act is a good step toward increasing transparency and may also reduce the number of requests that require staff to respond. (For more information, see “Local Agency Opportunities for Website Transparency”)
It’s difficult to get new technology projects off the ground. This is true if the project in question is overwhelmingly large in scope and requires complex integration with the city’s data systems. However, online services and products can be added to a city’s existing services much more easily today than a few years ago. A number of these offer significant advantages for involving the public in local government.
Seizing New Opportunities for Public Engagement
Many online services provide convenient ways for cities to engage the public. Some are free, and others are fee-based. These services create virtual online communities that are organized by city neighborhoods or geographic areas. They can also function as a virtual town hall meeting.
Many of us have experienced the downside of online public forums where vitriol is commonplace and little if any effort is made to moderate the comments or elicit input from a broad cross section of the community. However, many of these shortcomings are addressed by the online services I’m talking about here. For example, one fee-based service customizes the online forum to meet the city’s needs; it posts the issues that the city seeks public input about, but within a structure that has guidelines and is moderated. In this particular model, each community member must register and agree to the rules in order to participate. They cannot post anonymously, and they are limited to one post per issue. This pretty much eliminates the issue of vitriolic rants and situations where one person posts repeatedly. This service uses a moderator who moves the posts of people who violate the rules to a virtual parking lot, ensuring that everyone who participates has an equal voice and civility is observed.
Another service, which is free, enables people to create virtual communities and exchange information. Neighborhoods are using this model to share ideas and tips on everything from baby sitters to potluck dinners and gardening. This type of service provides a forum for the city to solicit feedback from residents on a broad range of civic issues and share information about activities and projects that affect their neighborhood, such as public works and road closures. In my city, Mountain View, residents are using this type of free service. However, the city is still considering its options in terms of how best to engage the community online. (To find such services, search online using combinations of the following key words: community, neighborhood, building, open, civic engagement, town hall, neighbors, connect, service.)
Having vibrant neighborhoods is important for all our cities, and we need to be connected with our residents for many reasons — emergency response during disasters, building a sense of community that enhances public safety, fostering civic pride and much more. Now we have access to tools that make it easier to further engage people in local government and communicate with them directly through online posts that they access through their phones. In these times of shrinking resources, why not use these tools that are free or low cost? They enable us, in many cases, to increase transparency and provide more public notice for less cost.
The Issue of Risk
It’s safe to say that in general, government is averse to taking risks, and human nature is resistant to change. When using new tools, such as the ones described here, a certain amount of risk is involved. But everything we do involves some degree of risk; nothing is risk free. In local government, that means we as elected officials must assess the risks and make decisions that are in the public’s best interests. We must make a conscious effort to overcome our natural resistance to change and challenge ourselves to find better ways to serve our communities.
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
We frequently hear that people want government to operate “more like a business.” They want it to improve the efficiency of operations and offer better service to its customers: the public. And while the differences between government and business are significant (and, indeed, fodder for an entirely separate discussion), the need to improve service and increase efficiency is in keeping with the principles of good governance. The rapidly shrinking digital divide offers opportunities for local government to reach and engage people in ways that have not been possible until now.
We are in a new era, and we need to seek proactive solutions to the challenges facing our communities. As responsible public servants and elected officials, we must explore new ways to engage and serve our residents. I urge you to step outside your comfort zone and look at how your city can better use technology to do just that.
New Guide Available
The Institute for Local Government has published a new guide for local officials about online civic engagement that covers a variety of related areas and offers tips for communities that are interested in exploring the opportunities afforded by today’s technology. For more information, visit www.ca-ilg.org/onlinepublicengagement.
This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Western City
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