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In Texas, a Small Town Hopes for a Gov 2.0 Makeover Miracle

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, September 1 2010

A QR code at a park in Manor, Tx., is a visual hyperlink to more information about the field. City of Manor // Flickr photo

As technologists around the country — some of whom you may have heard of — are calling for an age of innovation, experimentation, and rebirth in the American city, those same localities are shutting off streetlights (as in my home town of Santa Rosa, Ca.), downsizing police forces, closing public transit lines, and reducing other services.

Open government advocates see technology and innovation — used correctly — as part of the solution. And as part of two-day conference in a city regarded as an example of innovation in practice, they'll try to prove that tech solutions to civic problems can be replicated on any scale.

On Sept. 20 and 21, Manor, Tx. will host manor.govfresh, a two-day conference for state and local public servants to talk tech and open government. And they'll be giving another Texas town — De Leon, population 2,433 — a "Gov City 2.0 Makeover."

De Leon is a town going through a rough patch. Peanut farming, which accounted for a sizeable chunk of local employment, moved out of the area, De Leon City Administrator Karen Wilkerson told me recently. And that was just the beginning.

"A lot of the factories around here had to cut back on their employment," Wilkerson added, "so that really hurt us."

Over the past year and a half, De Leon's tax rolls have also taken a hit as property values dropped. The tiny town had to lay off one of its five police officers and scrap plans to bring a part-time employee full-time, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson hopes this Gov 2.0 makeover will be a nudge back towards stability.

"We’re hoping this will get us going back in the right direction," she said.

The tech upgrades that Manor has in store for its neighbor are the same ones it's been getting mileage out of for the last two years: A QR code program, so that people with smartphones can find out about historical landmarks and public projects by using their camera phones to get directed to mobile-enabled webpages; social media accounts for De Leon and records retention components for those accounts; a rebuilt city website with open-source tools; a 311 system and emergency management components; and a Manor Labs-esque system for crowdsourcing other ways to improve city government.

Manor's chief information officer, Dustin Haisler, told me late last month that these upgrades are a way to get things done for constituents on a shoestring budget. In a follow-up email, he wrote that he's concerned that Manor may be considered an exception rather than a proof of concept; part of the point of this De Leon project is an attempt to prove that the reverse is true, and any town can do what Manor has done.

As the recession began taking its toll in Manor, Haisler told me, the city staff started looking for ways to meet demand — like the ability to collect water bill payments online — without stretching thin the small town's resources.

"That’s how we got into the whole Gov 2.0 movement," Haisler said. "It was almost a whole survival thing."

Manor's QR code program has reduced the number of calls they have to field concerning questions about public projects, Haisler told me. Since they opened up online payment for water bills, he said, about 70 percent of the population has signed up.

"We utilize SeeClickFix," he added, "and that’s allowed us to save on annual fees for using another CRM system that would have cost a lot of money. There’s a lot of innovative tweaks that can happen."

If they can happen in a De Leon with equal success as they happened in Manor is certainly an open question; the two cities are remarkably different. Manor is a suburb of Austin, the home of SXSW, Austin City Limits, and a thriving tech sector; De Leon is over two hours' drive from Dallas and over an hour from Abilene, and according to the city administrator, has lost core employers in recent years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the median age in Manor is about 32 and the median household income is nearly $38,000; in De Leon, the median age is 38 and the median household income is less than $20,000.

Part of Manor's success — and the success of the QR code program — came after city officials noticed the amount of traffic coming to city webpages from mobile phones, Haisler told me. We know cellphone usage is on the rise among older Americans, but in older, lower-income De Leon, will this program have the reach to create civic benefits? Later this month, I suppose, we'll all have a better idea of what the answer will be.

The project is just ramping up, said Wilkerson, the De Leon city administrator. More details will come available as De Leon's makeover gets closer to completion.