Every year after I attend the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City, I am left with an energized and inspired feeling about how government can be a positive force in people’s lives, and how technology can help play a role in making that happen. PDF (Not to be confused with Adobe .pdf files), is one of the largest gatherings of people discussing the intersection of technology and government/politics, and this year I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to present a keynote talk to this amazing audience of technologists, journalists, activists, programmers and, well, government nerds (which you can watch at personaldemocracy.com)
One of the biggest challenges that many people have noticed, and certainly something I’ve seen in South Orange, is the question of how to find ways to get people legitimately engaged in the governance process so that they feel like - and are - part of the progress happening in the community. Moving an election to inflate turnout numbers by a few points doesn’t accomplish the type of genuine government engagement that I’m talking about.
Rather, finding ways for people to not only be informed about, but actually participate in government is critical. And this doesn’t mean sitting in a committee or board meeting, it means finding what someone is passionate about and integrating that into a process which allows them to accomplish concrete goals in and for the community.
One of the ideas presented, and often discussed at this forum is the idea of participatory budgeting. And although our Citizen’s Budget Advisory Committee is one outlet to allow people to understand and participate in budgeting, that format isn’t going to work for everyone.
This year in South Orange was the first year we made our budget available in a downloadable spreadsheet that members of the community can manipulate to see the impact of different changes. We are one of a few local governments that now make our budget information this accessible, so much so in fact that it garnered open government praise from the New Jersey ACLU. In the interest in continuously improving there are online tools, one for example that used sliders to help visualize the impact of budget changes, that could allow us to take that even a step further, and at the very least help promote more comprehensive understanding of the budget process for those who want to learn more, and see how different changes impact the budget and at the most, allow us easier access to our community’s ideas on financial priorities.
Too often in local government we hear the expression “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and as officials elected at-large, we need to understand our role as speaking for the entire community, not just one (loud) interest group or another. The internet can either make this better, or can make it worse. We see the worse on open-ended, anonymous and un-moderated local message board sites were a super-small fraction of people attempt to dictate what turns out to be a generally non-productive discourse. We can also see the promise of the internet, with web-based software that would allow community voting on things from budget priorities to downtown projects, to concert series, and more. This mantra is repeated every year at PDF: Platform is critical.
More information, organized and collected in a constructive way, as to what a wider swath of our community wants will empower us to make better decisions and help remove the barrier that exists for people to share their opinion about town issues. Instead of only the few who come to a Board meeting or who happen to know an elected official, we could open the doors and basically create a 24/7/365 ongoing digital town hall. There are even participatory voting formats, for example one referred to as ‘Liquid Democracy’ that proposes an interesting continuous and recursive proxy-vote system that is meant to allow trusted experts to gain say and influence on issues, rather than those with fundraising ability or political connections, or perhaps even worse... the squeaky wheel.
One of the other panels, which included the White House Chief Technology Officer and Maryland’s Chief Innovation Officer, talked about how private companies interact with government through procurement. We discussed some of the limits imposed by government on small businesses by way of costly and lengthy RFP processes that reward larger companies that have the resources to keep track of and thoroughly respond to extremely detailed RFPs. There was some discussion around how to help small businesses and startups collaborate in their responses to RFPs, that by themselves they may not be able to properly address, but by joining with other smaller groups, would be able to do. Improved processes like this could potentially help encourage innovation and efficiency in the private sector, no longer putting small businesses at disadvantages for the billions spent in government contracts annually.
Last, access to public records, typically seen as the one of the cornerstones to transparent government was a topic that was presented on by a group of programmers who had, just days earlier in a lead-up event to the main conference, developed a web-based interface that allowed easier access to public documents for New York City’s government. By having a more user-friendly web-form, that directed requests to appropriate departments, showed online charts of how many requests were filed, pending, etc. and showed every request on the website ever made (allowing instant access by anyone to documents that have already been requested) helps reduce municipal expenses of providing these documents and improves the public’s access to them. Although in South Orange, we have been one of the most proactive municipal government with how much information is available to the public on our website, creating a web portal would lower the barrier of access to public information even further and help reduce the taxpayer expense with fulfilling redundant OPRA requests. I have already begun discussion about the feasibility of adopting this open-source software for use in South Orange.
This update is only a snippet and I suggest anyone interested in learning more stop by my office hours, contact me, read this full post on southorange.org, or check out personaldemocracy.com for all the videos.