Does ‘online open government’ sound like a tautology or, worse, a myth? As private citizens, we have embraced the way that the internet can empower us as consumers of goods from private companies. Now we’re starting to demand the same thing from the public sector. And slowly but surely, the public sector is starting to respond. In an age of austerity, with ever-tightening budgets, it makes sense to use technology to empower citizens to do things that paid employees used to do, whether that’s updating address data, or providing a meter reading to an energy company.
A new way of thinking
But Tom Spengler, co-founder and CEO of Granicus, one of the leading lights in the government cloud computing industry, argues that we need to take this further. His company, founded in 1999, provides a range of tools to help and support open online government. Granicus software has been used by almost 1,000 government agencies and organisations to support engagement and involvement of citizens. He believes that we need to move our thinking beyond transactional relationships, and towards proper engagement and co-working between government and citizens.
His argument is, at least in part, aimed at addressing increasing voter apathy, a problem in both the US and UK, as well as elsewhere. He points out that with one third of Americans now owning a tablet, and many more owning a smartphone, there are easy ways to engage with people. And there is a huge appetite for involvement too. But politicians are still hiding behind ‘send me an email’, and public engagement still requires citizens’ physical attendance at meetings. Why, Spengler asks, is it not possible to contribute remotely in real time, and to real issues, not just in response to a consultation setting out government proposals?
Tools for change
If you’re thinking that the tools to permit this change don’t really exist yet, then you’re not entirely wrong. There are not many companies providing them, but one possible platform is e-deliberation.
E-deliberation is a tool to support online collaboration. However, the company behind it has taken the thinking further, by making it a tool for ‘deliberation’, and not just consultation once policies have been developed. Put your ‘wicked issues’ out there, they invite, and let your community help solve them. It doesn’t matter whether your community is a small team or a big city, the potential is the same. The system works best with more than 12 people, but there is no maximum, and the company claim that it only gets better with larger groups. And if you stop to think about it, this makes sense, because it’s more minds to draw on.
But this idea of ‘crowd-sourcing’ is not new. It has been around for almost ten years: the term was first coined in 2005 or 2006, and defined as using a large network of ‘the public’ to carry out a function that would previously have been done in house. The idea is that the function is being outsourced to the crowd. Private companies have, in many cases, embraced it with glee as a way to draw on expertise for free, and therefore save themselves money.
The public sector has yet to catch up with this enthusiasm, partly because of a widely-felt concern that people only engage with the public sector when they want to complain or to try to stop something happening (think of widespread objections to the closure of hospitals in the UK, for example). This has often led to defensiveness in any engagement process, whether by healthcare organisation or city administration. It is fair to say that there is considerable mistrust on both sides.
But there are cities embracing the opportunity. For example, Spengler cites Austin, Texas as an example. Their ‘Speak up, Austin!’ program, which uses Granicus software, includes an online portal which asks ‘How can we improve the city of Austin?’. The online community can brainstorm ideas, discuss problems and cast votes, and already has over 2,000 registered users. By July this year, they had generated 800 ideas, cast over 5,000 votes, and left over 1,000 comments. There are 50 civic ideas being considered, and 23 are already fully implemented.
Moving to genuinely open government can be a scary step for local and central government and their citizens alike. But for government, it’s surely the best way to ensure that citizens are engaged and that you are serving their needs, and for citizens, it’s time to stop complaining and start taking responsibility and action.