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Interview with Phil Ting: Openness in Elections and Government

While in San Fransisco last month I had the pleasure of interviewing San Fransisco Mayoral Candidate and Harvard Kennedy School alum Phil Ting. We talked all things gov20, and had a fascinating conversation about his campaign, life working in SF government, and his thoughts around what public policy students need to learn to be leaders in a networked world.

Phil Ting is running a transparent campaign, and is focusing his efforts on engaging San Franciscans through Reset San Francisco, an online forum designed to give people opportunities to interact with each other and their elected officials to discuss the issues they care about. Ting is a gov20 advocate, and understands the challenges and opportunities of large-scale engagement:

“the way we [the government] get feedback is so archaic and has such an inability to process large amounts of information that you can only get feedback from five or ten people…and the other ten thousand people…are shut out of the process. So how do you really open it up to be representative…you have to go get enough people so that you are getting a response that is accurate to the population…I think that is what we are trying to do with Reset San Francisco, is not just get feed back but then say, ‘hey, I can’t do it by myself, I’m just one person … we need people’s help to do it.”

Here is a summary of our conversation (Listen to the full interview here):

1. What are your priorities for this campaign?
Our main priority for this campaign is to change the way the people elect the mayor of San Francisco. Traditionally, politicians cater to interest groups to leverage their power. However, this shuts out the rest of the population. We want to win this election by empowering individuals and increasing the number of active participants in the campaign from a few hundred to thousands. Our campaign seeks to skip the game playing and go right to the people. By fostering an exchange of ideas we are helping them become more involved and engaged to make government more transparent and accessible. This is how the idea of Reset San Francisco came about.

2. So what is Reset San Fransisco all about? What is the User Experience like on the platform?
The participant gets a login, picture, and has the option to link it to their Facebook. Members can then go in and read or comment and be a part of the dialogue. In their profile, they can give their name or be anonymous and provide as little or as much information as they wish. This is a safe space to talk about the issues San Franciscans care about.

San Franciscans are able to be a part of the political process and learn about their government, community, and get involved through the following features:
  • Participate in online discussions through message boards and chat rooms

  • Give feedback through surveys and polls

  • Interact with elected officials and neighbors through Offline Community Events

  • Open a profile that has their picture, information, and other information they wish to disclose.

  • Access content in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and English.

  • Link to facebook
  • Obtain information about events, processes, and need-to-know resident information.

3. How do you translate the principles of engagement in your campaign into structures of governance?

Working with the barriers to, not avoid them, but change them and adapt the system to work for the people. I serve as both the head of a governmental department as well as a mayoral candidate. Therefore, I implement change within my division to better serve the community. This is how something is taken from a campaign promise to policy.

4. What challenges do you face in using technology to engage?
In tough financial times, people perceive technology as a luxury rather than part of their core business model. People are also overworked; therefore, the idea of opening something up as more work not less work is a hindrance. There are also people in government who are looking to keep things the same and they don’t like change. Although the Internet eliminates the hindrances of time and location, many people perceive it as promoting less interaction rather then more.

5. What are some interesting things that have come out of Reset San Francisco?
The petitions are extremely successful. We have a solar program in San Fransisco that actually brings in more money than it costs. However, there was a government proposal to cut funding for this program. The Go Solar SF petition was started on Reset SF and received over 700 signatures that led to a rally being held with city workers and environmentalists who demanded that the program be saved. This highlights the power of using online organizing to spur offline behavior.

6. One of the things we thought about a lot at the Kennedy School was the extent of technology training needed for Public Policy students, aspiring to careers in public service. You are a Kennedy School alum and dedicated public servant and are committed to using tech in your work; what do you think HKS students should learn regarding technology?
How to communicate with the public is a vital part of using technology to expand engagement. Communication is not just about giving a speech, but how feedback is processed and used to improve the organization. Good organizations who want to become great take feedback and use it to make things work more effectively.

San Francisco will hold its mayoral election on Tuesday November 8, 2011. Currently, Edwin M. Lee is holding the office of Mayor as a replacement for Gavin Newsom who is now serving as Lieutenant Governor of California (elected 2010). For more information on each candidates open government platform, check out Code for America’s recap on the SFOpen 2011 debate. The current candidates are:

Name Current Position Political Affiliation
Michela Alioto-Pier San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
John Avalos San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
David Chiu San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
Bevan Dufty San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
Tony Hall San Francisco Board of Supervisors
Dennis Herrera San Francisco City Attorney Democrat
Joanna Rees Venture Capitalist Progressive Independent
Phil Ting San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Democrat
Leland Yee California State Senator Democrat

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Jeff Ribeira

Great interview! The Reset San Francisco project sounds pretty cool, not to mention effective. Having grown up in the Bay Area (although I haven’t actually lived there for a few years now so I’m not as invested as I once was) it’s still nice to see the various tech and innovation that comes out of the ol’ hometown. Definitely a big election though…