Technology may cause you dangerous motives but it’s man-made and ought to be seen as your friend.
It is for this reason I am continually frustrated with government agencies (and businesses, for that matter) that operate in the past.
I think it’s sad when my 86-year-old grandmother books airline tickets online from her new computer and drives around in a talking car yet my hometown of Newburyport only started offering residents the ability to pay taxes and parking tickets online in May.
Edwardsville, Illinois, for instance, began an online bill paying service for its 24,000 residents in 2004. I’m sure other communities offered the service earlier. More are destined to follow.
Over 70 local and state government officials attended last month’s Pennsylvania Digital Government Summit, sponsored by Government Technology magazine, as reported in Computerworld, and heard proven tools and technologies to leverage the power of Web 2.0 to increase the ways they interact and communicate with residents.
“I’m not here to tell government to just jump in,” said James Young, the associate vice president for information services at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. “It takes a while to adopt this stuff, because we don’t know what is going to work and what’s not going to work.”
Welcome to 2008
Fact is, we live, work, and play on the super information highway. If you disagree, wake up and smell your television. It’s about time for government to get up to speed.
A tenet of democracy, according to internet strategist Steven Clift, is the geographical interaction of people uniting locally with each other to influence and provide feedback to government. Yet, how often do citizens “jointly solve problems or to get directly involved in efforts to make their communities better?”
In “Rebooting America,” an anthology of 44 essays by internet thinkers that hit bookshelves this week, Clift writes:
The typical e-government experience is like walking into a barren room with a small glass window, a singular experience to the exclusion of other community members.
There is no human face, just a one-way process of paying your taxes, registering for services, browsing the information that the government chooses to share, or leaving a private complaint that is never publicly aired.
You have no ability to speak with a person next to you much less address your fellow citizen browsers as a group… it is ironic that the best government web-sites are those that collect your taxes, while those that give you a say on how your taxes are spent are the worst or simply do not exist.
Maybe you live in a community with an e-government infrastructure that embraces email communication with city officials, provides laptops to elected officials to cut down on printing paper, supports government-resident email communication, advertises events on Facebook, and engages bloggers and news reporters to work together as citizen journalists on a common blog or wiki.
I look to places like Washtenaw County, Michigan; Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; or the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District in California that regularly use social media to engage citizen feedback on a level unlike anything tried before.
Perhaps the best example is Westport, Connecticut, where WestportNow.com is driven by local officials as the town’s 24-hour news and information source. It’s been up since 2003.
I live in Massachusetts but over the past week, I’ve exchanged several 40-character messages with Texas Congressman John Culberson; I’m fairly confident (because I checked) that my state congressional delegation don’t have Twitter accounts.
who have embraced social media as a way for having a direct discussion with the public,” says Brian Giesen on 360° Digital Influence.
As a taxpayer, voter, resident, or anyone else vested into the community, don’t you want a reciprocal relationship with your local or state elected leaders? I know I do.
One way to improve communication is via online collaborative tools like wikis.
Ellen Perlman and Melissa Maynard explain in “Working in Wiki: How to Assemble Real Ideas in a Virtual World” in the June 2008 issue of Governing:
A wiki is a collaboratively edited web page that allows users to edit or add content. Within a government agency, it can be used to allow information to bubble from all corners, and from people who might never have been invited to attend a meeting but who might have ideas about how to proceed or where to exercise caution — whether it’s on a construction project, the delivery of a service, or a means of raising revenue.
I accept that many people are accustomed to the status quo and don’t accept change well. I respect both my peers and Baby Boomer workers who are either afraid, scared, or discomforted by the idea of working with something new.
“Organizations need to extend their security processes to enable safe use of Web 2.0 technologies” said John Pescatore, vice president at Gartner. “Strategies to contain and protect the use of new technologies will always be more effective in the long run than security approaches that rely solely on blocking.”
I can relate. When I worked in City Hall, I routinely used Google to look up information crucial to the task at hand. A believer in adapting proven technologies for my own use rather than reinventing the wheel, I frequently received server messages that the website in question was blocked.
Productivity was wasted by emailing the IT director with the specific URL I was trying to access in the hopes his BlackBerry was active and he could edit the server files in quick time. What if he was in another building and couldn’t remotely access the server? Or if he was on vacation?
Embrace technology by working with younger people
“They use it every day at college,” said Mary Benner, CIO for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, who spoke at the digital summit about the next generation of IT workers who will replace retiring municipal officials. “That’s their way of communicating. If we don’t offer those technologies, they will see us as being in the Dark Ages.”
By way of example, drive about 50 miles east of London to the British borough of Medway, where the Medway Council recruited students to produce podcasts and teach the councilors about the technology. The kids also used social media sites like Myspace and Facebook (which they, like I and my peers, already knew like the back of their hands) for promotion and advertising of the downloadable podcasts and for community festivals.
Simon Wakeman, marketing director for the Council, summarizes the finer points in a 25-slide presentation at Slideshare about how a simple gesture and desire to learn led to a working and trusting relationship between kids in the community and adults.
“What do they like?” Young, the Pennsylvania professor suggested government leaders ask residents. “What do they want? You can communicate with them and create a buzz.”
Start small. Don’t do everything at once. Don’t middle and high schools offer a computer club? Maybe the kids are part of some web geek club. Invest in them. Give the club some money and in return they can help you with IT solutions.
Perhaps Bill St. Arnaud, a Canadian technologist, says it best in his probe of how e-government can improve citizen engagement. At Internet Evolution, he writes, “We are only limited by our imagination, in optimizing the Internet as a new revolutionary tool to truly personalize democracy.”
Last week, I wrote about organizations that must embrace change or become irrelevant. If you’re a Newburyport resident, government official, or business owner reading this, would you be interested in learning more how web technologies can help you?