The proliferation of digital engagement tools and the broader civic innovation movement present an enormous opportunity for those of us interested in increasing civic and community engagement, especially at the local level. A comprehensive study about the state of public participation in local decision making in California confirms that many local governments are stuck in the spiral of only seeing the usual suspects. Digital engagement platforms that inform and invite feedback online and via mobile devices dramatically increase the possible reach and access of local decisions.
Yet, we’ve observed that jurisdictions who employ these tools are only going to be successful to the extent that they embrace core engagement practices outlined in our recent article for the Institute for Local Government: Broadening Participation Using Online Tools. If you don’t know your audiences well, don’t have partnerships and succumb to the prevalent professional myopia that ordinary residents will understand government-speak, then you will have simply transferred your “usual suspects syndrome” to a new platform. We are particularly interested in projects that pursue the hardest to reach residents and recommend downloading this report prepared by PlaceMatters: Engagement Tech For All. We are finding that the “best in class” work these days combines the strengths of both in-person and online in a way that understands a given community’s style and rhythms.
The advent of “open government” reinforces the critical concept that local government (or any level of government for that matter) has to let go of the burdensome yoke of “we have to have all of the answers.” No matter how well trained and committed, the professional staff and electeds will never have enough resources to address our most pressing problems without partners. Innovative programs like Code for America and their local brigades are unleashing new capacity and new ways of looking at data in service of shared outcomes.
And yet again, we are wondering about the extent to which those who are excited about the possibilities of the new data are also in touch with the upside of leveraging the untapped capacity of community residents. We became fans of Open Oakland last year because their annual Day of Civic Hacking event was a project called Oakland Answers that anyone could contribute to. (If you are interested in learning more about civic hacking and like me, are not a native tech person, check out this video from Christopher Whitaker who assures us that hacking is just “tinkering.”) But in most cities there is only a tenuous link at best between the “civic innovators” and those who can help dowse the broader community’s gifts and capacities. In many cases, well-intentioned people are building bridges to nowhere. We are on the watch for projects that combine the best of technology and the best of community – please let us know the ones you think do that.
A final note: As we get deeper into the tech side of things, we feel the equal imperative to go deeper into the heart and art space. We’ve been walking alongside Wisdom 2.0 and cheering on and learning from the launch of the U. S. Department of Arts and Culture. Our next step is adapting Joan Blades’ Living Room Conversations model to generate mutual understanding between tech workers and residents whose gifts are often unrecognized. We welcome your ideas and insights in this inquiry.