Urban planners are often of the visionary sort. With the advent of automobiles, many planners imagined cities with futuristic mega highways connecting skyscraper-filled employment centers with bucolic suburbs (one can argue whether that vision came to be reality or not). As more social and ecological concerns have risen to the forefront of society, planners have created new visions for eco-friendly cities that sustain themselves on local food and renewable energy.
The same visionary label can applied to technology and Web entrepreneurs. Since the birth of the microprocessor, tech pioneers have continually reimagined the future with each new advance. As the Internet has been the driving force behind much of the change and innovation in business and society for the past decade, it’s hardly a surprise that many technologists are now focused on reimagining government.
The idea they put forth is simple on the surface. Just as the Web has benefited from moving from a static, largely one-way communication tool into a rich medium that facilitates interactivity between people, government would be improved by transforming it from a top-down, public servant-driven bureaucracy into a citizen-driven platform that encourages participation and collaboration. The ultimate emphasis of this new vision for government – dubbed Gov 2.0 – is for government to create infrastructure and policies to allow anyone to work together to access or even deliver services better, faster and cheaper than government can itself.
Of course, while the vision paints an intriguing picture, the reality is somewhat messier. Enter Tim O’Reilly, a leading technology entrepreneur and thinker who was recently dubbed the “Oracle of Silcon Valley” by Inc Magazine. O’Reilly has emerged as a leading voice in the Gov 2.0 movement, and is working to bring major players in government and industry together to explore how to begin implementing these ideas. To this effect, his company, O’Reilly Media, organized the latest Gov 2.0 conference in Washington, D.C. last week – which attracted several thousand public servants and technologists (and many people who fit in both camps).
While there were a fair amount of discussions around the technical challenges of implementing Gov 2.0, much of the focus was on several key topics – including how to increase government openness and transparency (a key ingredient), and how to best engage citizens in this new model of government.
Trying to convince government officials to open their data (and then helping them do it successfully) remains a big challenge. While several government officials who had led open data initiatives spoke about the benefits (and potential hurdles), Clay Johnson, an open data and transparency evangelist from The Sunlight Foundation argued that the demand for more transparency is an external force that governments will not be able to resist in the long-term – a sentiment echoed by several other experts during the conference.
Regarding citizen involvement and outreach via social media, many of the presentations centered around the fact that social media tools aren’t solutions themselves, but tools to help government communicate appropriate messages to certain audiences. There was wide agreement that governments need to work on their messaging – following the same best practices that have always worked for successful engagement, such as opportunities for collaboration and learning. Online games and simulations offer another mechanism for building active participation.
What does all this mean for cities? Much of the focus at the Gov 2.0 Expo was on federal agencies that have to comply with the new Open Government Initiative (and have the resources to do so). While the Obama Administration’s support for Gov 2.0 is encouraging, it could be argued that most citizens interact with cities and local public agencies far more than the federal government. Such a disconnect between federal policy and role of urban areas sadly seems the norm. Yet, as more cities embark on their own efforts to open their data and develop platforms for citizen participation, it’s possible that the Gov 2.0 movement will find more inspiration from outside the Washington Beltway.
Christian Madera writes the Open Cities column for Next American City. He is a former managing editor of Planetizen, and has spent the last decade working in the fields of urban planning policy and web technology.