When doling out some part of the 1 trillion dollar economic stimulus package in 2009, perhaps President Obama and his leadership team could think a little more broadly about enabling local government and education to take advantage of new Web 2.0 technologies to support true fundamental change in the way that citizens communicate with government.
State and local jurisdictions count
Depending upon whose measurement is used, there are over 100,000 cities, towns, and independent districts such as schools, utilities, and airports in the United States. These local jurisdictions are ground zero for community building and decision making. Like a colorful blanket, they represent a rich fabric of local networks fundamental to getting things done in America.
When implementing new public participation technologies it would be easy to replicate the mistakes of the past and to centralize enabling technologies in the federal government. After all, the perception is that federal government is where the really big national issues are going to get resolved, and that these issues require a national dialogue.
What gets missed in a federally centralized approach to technology implementation is that state and local government deals with really big issues as well – albeit on a local level. And no, they do not command the large “log normal” national citizen networks envisioned by our new President’s transition team. But that does not make them unimportant.
Local citizen networks are truly ground up
In a rush to getting things done on the world and national stage, it should be remembered that networks are largely built from the ground up. To be effective in changing national attitudes towards public participation, the new leadership team should strongly consider funding the technology and expertise necessary to help state, local, and regional government build citizen networks at a local level.
This is a natural extension of President Obama’s thematic of neighborhood organization. Indeed, at the Neighborhood Ball the President spoke at length about the importance of building citizen dialogue recognizing that neighborhoods are building blocks for broader effectiveness at a national level. Said another way, we can not as a nation be effective at a national level in transforming citizen engagement if we are not effective at a local level.
Local citizen networks would help citizens have a voice a big local decisions such as the billions of dollars of road projects, local educational initiatives. regional economic development and cooperation, environmental planning, parks, utilities and infrastructure all being funded by the national government.
Why do we want localized citizen participation?
The reason that local participation is so important is not merely that citizens have a voice to vote on each project, but more-so to provide decision support and citizen ownership that helps state, regional, and local government make spending decisions that align with local priorities, and that are efficient. History has demonstrated many times that when the federal government spends massively as it is about to do, one of the greatest challenges is to spend wisely.
Social networks and more broadly, public participation technologies can help state, regional. and local government spend wisely. Why? Because they can involve more citizens while at the same time speeding up the local decision making processes with consensus building.
So why wouldn’t the federal government, as a part of its reformation of government and commitment to economic stimulus, encourage state, regional and local deployment of public communications systems by:
– providing funding to state, local and regional government directed to IT and enabling services for the implementation of citizen engagement services.
– providing incentives to state, local, and regional government to implement citizen networks and public participation technologies on a local level and for local issues. Perhaps though not mandatory, local governments could be favorably recognized for building on public participation.
– Encouraging the use of citizen networks to support intergovernmental cooperation.
Local participation is where change starts.
To truly effectuate change in public participation, that change is going to have to take place at a local level – much more so than at a federal level. And what might work at a federal level with large national and global issues (log normal, power law networks) that require a centralized management, is not necessarily the same challenge as at a local level, where there are decentralized highly fragmented networks with normal distributions.
The point is that citizen communications are just as if not more important at a state and local level as they are at a federal level designed for centralization to resolve big issues. When planning and building the road, infrastructure, education, and economic development projects contemplated by the new economic stimulus plans, citizen networks can enable efficient prioritization and implementation of expenditures so that they can be accelerated and minimize waste.
When allocating funds, let’s send state and local governments funds to enable gov 2.0 for citizen engagement at a local level.
So Prez, what do you say? Let’s take a very small piece of those trillions and enable state, local and regional government to truly rebuild their citizen communications systems. As cash strapped as state and local government is, they could use the help. And this type of help could lead to meaningful change.