I’ve wondered about this. In science fiction, technology is often viewed as a threat to democracy, individual freedom or even (as in those cases in which robots try to take over) humankind itself. In real life, however, technology can help make our democracies work better.
I’m always looking for good examples of communities using technology or social media to engage people in the process of local problem solving and decision making. Here’s one: Olathe, Kansas, recently was named one of the top “digital cities” by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine.
Like most communities, the city has public meetings to discuss budget issues and holds them in different venues in an effort to get people to come. “In our experience, budget hearings at city hall were dwindling,” says Erin Vader, the city’s manager of communications and public engagement. “So you take it on the road and do road shows.”
But even going out to the neighborhoods and bringing meetings to the people didn’t seem to get the crowds, so the city’s communications and public engagement department went in search of new ideas.
So they decided to hold an E-Town meeting in the studio of the local government access cable station and to drive interest and participation with social media. Chris Hernandez, a Kansas City TV news personality hosted the meeting, which was cablecast and live-streamed, and members of the public asked questions to city council members via e-mail, the city’s budget web page, Twitter and facebook.
The city launched an online forum six days before the scheduled e-meeting, asking citizens to submit questions. Questions could also be submitted live during the meeting.
Local officials consider the experiment a success. The city’s facebook page saw an increase of about 60 percent in post views during the live-cast of the event and traffic on the city’s budget web page increased nine fold.
This is the 11th year the digital cities award has been given for cities that increase efficiencies and achieve better results by using technology. Olathe won first place in the category of cities with between 125,000 and 249,999 residents. The e-town hall wasn’t the only one reason for their award. Olathe has used technology to consolidate its 911 dispatch system with the county and used improve meter reading machines to save money, which is being used to promote other energy saving measures.
Getting people out to budget hearings can be a tough sell, especially in these days when the choices are almost always sub-optimal. Ordinarily, the public only gets involved when some favored program or department is facing the chopping block. But it is important these days when the choices are so tough that the public is both aware of and engaged in the process, and technology can help. Not just in discussing the issues, but also in giving citizens a role in helping local government do more with less.
One of the other localities named in the digital cities survey was Long Beach, California. I’ve been doing some research on the city’s efforts to eliminate its “structural deficit.” Better use of technology is one of the ways they are trying to save on labor and money.
The city recently unveiled its “Go Long Beach” app, which allows citizens with smart phones to report problems like graffiti, pot holes, downed traffic signs and weed strewn yards so the city can respond to them more quickly and efficiently. The app allows a user to take a picture of the problem and the GPS on the smart phone tells city crews exactly where to go.
Long Beach has also made strides in using technology for more efficient document storage, upgraded its fiber optic networks and used streaming video and social media to keep citizens in touch with what’s going on at city hall.
Technology is no panacea. And there is always a risk that the robots may in fact decide to take over, but in the meantime, these cost savings and interactive engagement possibilities can increase citizen trust and understanding of government and the challenges facing localities in this time of financial crisis.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.