by Matt Rosenberg March 26th, 2010
Liberating public data and packaging it in useful ways is a must, but savvy advocates and enablers of transparency also heard today at the Open Government West conference in Seattle City Hall that intermediaries are essential too, for “last mile” delivery to community collaborators. Bill Schrier, Chief Technology Officer for The City of Seattle, said governments “must deputize the private sector, non-profits and academics to distribute data” and help drive public engagement around solutions. Bill raises an important point. And while the open government “deputies” include developers of some mighty practical mobile, location-based apps built off government data sets, and developers of online whiteboard tools to collect suggestions for governments, there’s a danger of being too government-centric about open government.
Maybe what’s needed even more than open government, is what Douglas Schuler (left) of The Public Sphere Project today called “civic intelligence,” formed around emergent patterns of civic thought and activity in communities, and used to develop responses to social and policy challenges and opportunities. This isn’t primarily driven by government but it can be a vital partner.
A particularly telling moment came when the communications feedback manager for a government division said during the comment and question time after one session that social media was becoming more appealing for the agency as an engagement tool than traditional surveys, meetings and Web sites. The next commenter suggested government needs to think not only about conversations on its own turf, online, but also must engage citizens in their own spaces online. Of course this extends to “meat space” or face-to-face environments. It should be done with some degree of selectivity – public sector communicators can’t and won’t engage just anywhere. But it also should entail more than damage control or “putting in an appearance.”
To ensure government data providers constructively participate in conversations on other “turfs” they need to start with some bottom-up brainstorming about just what kind of information it is people want. I’d like to see data sets cataloguing streets and parks maintenance backlogs and the extent of empty public school square footage. Week by week, month by month online crime data mapping correlated to block watch areas would set the stage for some pretty meaningful meetings between local police and neighbors.
Deputize community based mediators to promote these kinds of vital data to their constituencies, let them chew on it a bit, then re-convene with the public sector actors on community turf and talk about what it means and how to arrive at some policy responses to the emergent problems and opportunities.
Who implements the policy? It’s not always going to be government, not entirely. Maybe part of the solution to violent crime and high dropout rates among at-risk teens is a high octane parenting initiative that involves churches and schools and existing – not new – social service providers in the public and non-profit sectors.
Pick another set of issues, that’s fine. But government doesn’t own all the relevant data and can’t control the conversations. Government can be an energizer, an enabler and a facilitator of civic intelligence. If the community will come to the dance and stay to the end.
Then whatever the outcomes, let’s institutionalize case-specific assessment of the civic ROI, or return on investment, in each public engagement effort. Always measure and always record the successes and failures. And ask, what data and what processes were helpful, or sorely missed?