Sunday, August 3, 2014

Citizenville: How to take the town square digital and reinvent government

Since there are no City Council meetings next week (first time in a long time!) I had time this beautiful weekend to read a fabulous book that has transformed my thinking on a lot of issues relating to open government and citizen engagement. The book in question is "Citizenville: How to take the town square digital and reinvent government".

I read the book with Moncton in mind, so here are some of my random thoughts, inspired by (and often cribbed from) the book.

"The government is us; we are the government, you and I." Theodore Roosevelt

Like many politicians, I am concerned about the fact that so few people feel that it is important to vote (only 35.4% of the eligible voters turned out in May 2012, the year I was elected). Increasingly it seems that there is an enormous disconnect between citizens and their elected officials AND their elected officials and citizens...despite the fact that we are all engaging so much more with each other by so many other means (Twitter, Pinterest, FB, texting, etc.). During last week's stint of "Talk with a City Councillor" at the Moncton Market, a citizen asked me this question: "Why should anyone even care about municipal politics?" As you would expect, I had an answer, but it sure got me thinking. (Hey, as Northrop Frye wrote, "The simplest questions are not only the hardest to answer, they are the most important to ask.")

Public policy experts have written that government is like a vending machine: you put in money (taxes) and you get out goods and services (roads, fire and police protection, garbage pick-up, etc.). Of course, when the vending machine doesn't give us what we want, we shake it. Citizen engagement has been just that sometimes, shaking the vending machine. Sometimes it seems that there is no other way to get government to listen. I suppose we could fix the vending machine...or, we could throw it out and rethink government completely. A scary thought, I know (since truly, not many of us like change) but stick with me.

I've written before about cloud computing/open government, and I think it is the way of the future. Information is power...the more we can give that power to the people, the better off we will all be. I know that personally any time I've posted information about what happens at City Council, told people about Public Work's plan for snow removal, or the benefits of microsurfacing, citizens have loved it. Even when I get really angry calls from citizens, more often than not, when I can explain to them what is happening and the reasoning behind the decisions, they really appreciate it. I believe that the more we can open up at City Hall and let citizens know what is happening, the more engaged they will become.

Businesses and social networks are all already doing this...they don't have a choice. When you go to a restaurant and have crappy service and then post about the experience on FB, you can be assured that your opinion is listened to and your comments are taken to heart. We as a municipal government have to do the same thing...we have to engage the collective wisdom of people outside government and inside of government. The collaborative way that Wikipedia (the 6th most visited site on the web) works is key to our future success, because I'm convinced that our future is about participation, empowerment, feedback and collaboration. We have to learn to "think differently".

 So, how do we achieve this?

 According to Gavin Newsom, here are the five musts:

1. Government must be absolutely transparent. Personally, I think that everything that can be out there should be, things like: councillor's expenses, garbage pick-up schedules, searchable city council minutes, councillors' attendance at all meetings (boards, public, private and committee meetings),  street sweeping schedules, snow plowing (in real time), road construction, building inspection issues, pot hole filling, wheelchair accessible buildings, affordable housing, the nearest food bank, city owned land databases, splash park schedules, campaign contributions, etc...all in easily accessible, standardized, straight-forward applications.

2. We need to encourage people to use the data to create useful apps, devices, tools...anything they want. Collective wisdom is the key here...government can't do it alone.

3. We need to acknowledge that while the people who vote aren't necessarily "digital natives" (i.e., those under thirty have only known a digital universe), they are key to our future...we need to engage them on their own terms, not the traditional ways that are completely foreign to them.

 4. All citizens need to be encouraged to look for solutions to problems themselves, rather than depending upon the government to solve all the problems. We have to accept the fact that top-down hierarchy is no longer working and probably won't ever work again.

 5. Government needs a much more innovative, entrepreneurial mind-set.

 So, how do we get there? As you know, government is risk-adverse, and this is risky business. Bureaucracy is s-l-o-w to adapt and not always all that welcoming of change (much like most of us!). The reality is that no one out there knows where we are going and there is no guaranteed plan of action.

One of my favourite authors, Thomas Friedman (NYTimes) famously summed this up referring to the technological changes that followed publication of his 2005 bestseller:

 “When I wrote "The World is Flat", Facebook did not exist, Twitter was a sound, the Cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking space, applications were what you sent to college, LinkedIn was a prison, and for most people, Skype was a typo. All of that changed in just the last six years.”

The world has changed, but our basic government structures haven't changed in decades, and the cracks are showing. One simple example right now in Moncton is our river. The surfers have found it and allowed all of us to rediscover it. But how can we build on all the great things that came about as a result of the super bore last year? It is kind of difficult when the City's jurisdiction only goes as far as the river's edge, the province is primarily only interested in the health and safety of the people who go on the river and the federal government is primarily interested in anything that affects the river upstream and down. This is not a model that has the holistic best interests of our river in mind!

I have tried to be as open and transparent as I possibly can (without getting in trouble!) and I think that I have succeeded in some ways. One issue that many people have cited to me is their discomfort with the wide variations in opinions out there. I don't have any problem with this. At all.  The way I figure it, I represent all citizens, no matter what their opinion. If I only hear from people who think like me, that isn't good. I love hearing the diversity, even when I don't agree.

There is a lot of good energy out there from innovative people who want to make the world a better place. I guess the question is: how do we direct some of that energy toward civic life? The young people I meet each and every day are volunteering, they're engaged, they network. But their notion of public spirit is often completely divorced from politics and government, probably because the level of trust that many people have in politicians and government in general is so low. People under thirty grew up with the Internet. They have no fear of technology, just as I have no fear of my washing machine. They also have very different view of government. They're prepared to organize and make things happen. They are also very idealistic, but they don’t connect that to government. So, if we in government continue to speak to them in a language they don’t know how to speak, they will definitely not be interested in hearing what we have to say. When people (no matter what the age) feel engaged, they take ownership – that’s when they truly start giving their time and energy to something.

Some people don't believe their votes matter -- they don't think governments listen to them and that things will never change. This is incredibly sad to me. It doesn't have to be this way! Just this week a citizen texted me about the dead trees along Trinity Drive. I contacted the City's Arborist and he agreed to try to find some replacement trees. Wouldn't it be cool if there was an app that all citizens could go to when they see a dead tree, an unsightly property, an open culvert? They could send a photo and the app would post it...and citizens could follow the progress to getting the situation fixed. That has power. When people see that their opinions and input matter, I think things will change.

I know that people don't trust politicians. How do we rebuild that trust? I'm not entirely sure, but I do believe that letting people know what goes on, giving them the details of all the happenings (everything from water, garbage, police, fire, parks, urban planning, etc.) will go a long way to understanding that government does far more than squabble, posture and plead for money. There are some who think that governments aren't interested in solving problems, but rather in debating them. I would sure like to change this.

Municipal government touches every citizen's life in a daily way. In fact, the argument can be made that it is the level of government that has the biggest impact on people's daily lives. But I believe that governments have done a lousy job of communicating what they do, so most of us have no idea how enriched we are by it.

The other thing is that the "government" is real people. It is all of us. It is the police officer, garbage collector, by-law officer, secretary, IT worker, engineer, construction worker or politician who lives next door. Not the evil "they".

One truly excellent example of technology helping out community was the June 4th shooting in Moncton. I don't know about you, but the Twitter and FB updates from the RCMP were absolutely amazing. Wouldn't it be cool if the RCMP could put their data out there during normal circumstances? I know that they collect weekly crime states (because I receive them). Wouldn't it be interesting if this data was out there in a useable way?

Governments in general have a credibility problem. As politicians, we don't always do what we say we'll do. It seems that we often fall back on scare tactics, political positioning, and posturing. People are sick of this and wondering who is telling the truth and who's telling tales to get reelected.
I don't think that we as politicians give the public enough credit. We often fall back on the idea "Oh, it's too complicated, the public won't be able to understand the nuances, so we won't be completely open." My theory is put as much information out there as is possible (and legal). As we've seen repeatedly in the media, information has a way of getting out there anyway. And that's a good thing.

The other thing is the more information governments put out there, the more trust citizens will have. The more all of us know about what our politicians are doing, the more inclined we (the politicians) will be to behave honourably...because let's face it, human beings are all better when we know that someone is watching. That's why I believe that ALL political contributions, even at the municipal level, should be easily available to everyone. Transparency leads to trust.

 So, the more searchable, useable, practical data that can be put out there for the public to use as they wish, the better (IMHO)...after all, they are the ones who paid to gather it. We are living in a world where we can buy a book at Chapters at 2:00 am, order a birthday gift for a niece to be delivered across the country the next day, and chat with a friend in Peru in real time. Shouldn't we know what the City plans to do with the green space next door, when the snow plow will be around or when my garbage will be picked up this week?

Transparency shouldn't be a radical notion, but it seems that it is. I'm sure that if we make everything accessible, there will be scandals...but they exist anyway. There has to be a way to put the data out there because there are just so many positives. Unfortunately, keeping the data secret preserves the status quo...information is power...just think about WikiLeaks...

In many ways, the traditional idea of privacy is dead. Your phone tracks your every move, so does your car if you have GPS. You are photographed by cameras everywhere you go (ATMS, outside banks, outside stores). I can see the hockey net outside my house on google street views. Of course, all of those under 30 (the digital natives) have absolutely no expectation of privacy because they have been living digitally their entire lives. They don't know any other way. So, what's the best privacy policy in today’s world? "Don't do bad things."

I've been meeting with a lot of app developers and innovators and I'm so impressed by their generousity and willingness to contribute. Their willingness to create the platforms so that the public can create the content (think about the fact that FB has a billion users, but only 3,200 employees...ALL their content is created by the public). We in government need to take advantage of these brains and make it possible and easy for people to create things -- web sites, apps, software -- with all the data that we've collected. We need to learn what the Amazons, Apples, Yelps, FBs have let others do the work. Because, let's face it, governments often do a lousy job at new technology...we need to open up our data and then get out of the way. We don't have the resources nor (usually) the expertise. Also, during tough fiscal times, what gets cut? Not police, firefighters or food banks. We cut where no one will protest...IT. We need to encourage Hackathons where interested citizens can step up and help out...the City's terrible web site would be an excellent place to start!

The more we can share, the better off we will all be and the beauty is that many of the problems we are facing have already been solved elsewhere...we just need to find them. As Gavin writes many times in the book, "one-way is dead; two-way is the future"...because traditionally when government tries to become innovative, "that's just code for more giveaways to contractors." There's a deep cynicism about it...anything that breaks that narrative is really important.

Yes, some problems are complex, but from what I've seen, the system we've designed to solve those problems is more complex! But, unfortunately we hold on to that system because it's the way we've always done things. However, this is simply not going to work in NB right now.

Citizens are extremely in-tune with what should happen in our city. I've learned that over and over at the Moncton Market. I've received brilliant ideas from citizens. I would love to see some kind of on-line game for people who want to improve their city (a kind of "Farmville" game).  Most people don't find government engaging, interesting or worthwhile...and I think that it is government that needs to change and I think that "fun" needs to be a part of it. Not everyone has the time or interest to attend a meeting. A recent study showed that American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 53 hours a week on entertainment media...and the truth is that many adults spend untold hours doing things that seem to have no redeeming value (Farmville anyone? Tamagotchi?)...even things that seem like chores!

I think we need a clear feedback loop for our government (I’m not talking about elections that come around every four years). I don’t know if it should be a “rate my Councillor” or “rate my City Hall”, but I think we need it. It’s great that we are now considering putting a “report card” out there on what City Hall has accomplished, but I think it needs to go two ways. We need to hear from citizens what their priorities, concerns, and hopes are. It needs to be a two-way ongoing conversation. I sure love it when I seek opinions from citizens and they come back with all kinds of great ideas. We need more of this. However, the really amazing thing about open data is what it will show…evidence. It’s great that I can tell these anecdotal stories about citizens I’ve met and what they’ve told me, the next step is to get some real evidence, and this is where open data can help. When tools are developed for the public to contribute to the decision-making process, and add their voice to the deliberation of issues, it helps all of us.

One of the biggest problems with many governments today is that we’re set-up to manage problems, not solve them. We have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are…so that we keep our jobs. This has to change and it can change if we are open, transparent and are willing to take the risk of letting interested bodies innovate.

So, as I stated at the beginning, in the last municipal election only 35.4% of eligible voters voted. Obviously people don’t think their votes matter. They think all politicians are the same, so it doesn’t really matter who gets into office. However, if we were open and transparent about a simple and yet important thing like how we vote on important council resolutions and it was easy to see how each councillor voted, what a difference that would make! I’m working with a software developer (inPoli) to highlight every important vote I make at public council meetings. If citizens could easily see and understand the issues and how we voted on important matters, that would sure go a long way in differentiating us and giving the public a real view of who we are and what we believe in.

Of course, there is also that archaic system that we have that is the actual voting process…seriously! This needs to be automated. People should be able to vote from the comfort of their home or on their smart phone. It needs to be MUCH easier and done over a number of days. It seems ridiculous that you can buy a car, get a mortgage, increase a line of credit, book a tirp on-line, but you can’t vote.

And, when it comes to budgeting, I would love to see a much more inclusive process. As it is now, we deliberate the budgets over a couple of days and virtually no on shows up (with the exception of the organized public-interest groups). Wouldn’t it be fun to have something like this?

But you know what? I’ve probably been too harsh on those keen people who do care, who do show up, who submit their opinions, who volunteer to be on committees, who present to Council and sit through our meetings – thank you! It is SO much better than just sitting around complaining, that is for sure!

I don’t think most citizens realize the power that they have to make change. Because they do have the power, lots of it. Look at the RCMP vigil that was virtually organized in less than 24 hours? That was simply an amazing example of people coming together. The power of technology allows people to organize more quickly, more widely and more cheaply than ever before.

In some ways, social media may be the saving grace of democracy. Think historically of the effects of the printing press on the medieval world order, the effects of TV on radio, and now social media on print media. The public square is no longer controlled by gatekeepers. Again, information is power. In 1914 it cost $50 to send 10 words…today 63.2% of India has cell phones (but only 46.9% have toilets!). It has never been easier to organize and cross-collaborate. Citizens can self-organize and solve problems, rather than complaining that the government isn’t doing it. We need more of this, I think. You don’t have to “be” somebody to “do” something. We (government leaders) need to empower people to find solutions. These people who decide to take on finding the solutions are the new leaders…these are the people who will ultimately change how governments are run. In other words, as Gavin would say, with the advent of social-networking technology, the leader is all of us.

I’ve always worked in the arts field and there has never been much money. We’ve had to be incredibly creative and innovative in everything that we do. I don’t think that is a bad thing. Governments generally have a tendency to throw money at problems…which isn’t all that successful for the most part. However, our governments are sometimes paralyzed by a fear of failure, making innovation really tough. I get frustrated when people blame government ills on City employees. The vast, vast majority of the people that I’ve met at Moncton City Hall over the last two years are consummate professionals who are incredibly passionate and dedicated to their jobs. Success in our civil-service though is sadly not structured on achieving results, but rather it’s about doing your job, not breaking all the regulatory protocols (that people like me have put in place), and it definitely is not often about taking innovative risks! Unfortunately, process and protocol dominate, which pretty much sucks the innovation out of just about anyone.

Also, so often we analyse how much we spend on our programs and how many people are on staff…rather than really analysing the output – is this program working? Is it changing people’s lives for the better? We are much too focused on protocols and rules rather than people.  We need to empower City employees, give them the tools, set them up for success, to find the people who know more than they do and to empower those people to do all the things that they have dreamt up (because I know that they have some pretty fabulous ideas). We pay government managers to “follow the plan” to defend the status quo, because they get in trouble if they take risks and screw up…there is not much payoff for them if they adapt….again, government is much more interested in “managing” problems, rather than “solving” them…and yet we are living in a quickly changing world.  Obviously, this is a gross generalization because I know that all departments at City Hall are always trying to innovate in their own way, but it is always within very prescribed parameters. That is why giving outside innovators access to the data can be such a good thing.

We’re living in a time when we can’t just cut and tax out way out of our problems; we still need to solve them. We have to innovate and invent our way out. In the 21st century, innovation plus technology may be the only way to overcome our deficits and provide for all our citizens.

To quote Gavin one last time: "Technology puts power in the hands of the people – but only if we let it. However, given the fact that our governments (all of them) are mired in bureaucracy, this transfer of power is clearly the key to democratizing our voices, bringing our 19th Century government into the 21st Century. We need to move from a “top down” to a “bottom up” model. Not one of us is an expert on everything – if government can encourage collective expertise and the democratization of voices, we’ll all be better off."

Thank you so much for reading all of this! I would love to hear your thoughts.






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