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Gov 2.0 Expo: Government as Partner with the Public; An Idea Whose Time Is...

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 8 2009

The final set of presentations at the Gov 2.0 Expo focused on "Government as a partner." This, hopefully, is where we'll hear about some cutting-edge examples of government opening up to involve citizens as co-creators of better government. (If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I complained earlier in the day that many of the great examples being showcased here today were either of government using social media internally to share information--like the intelligence community's A-Space, the TSA's Idea Factory, or NASA's Spacebook; or government using social media to better inform the public--like EPA's MyEnvironment, or CrimeReports.com; but we hadn't yet heard much about government working as a platform to connect citizens to each other to better solve problems with (or without) government.

As with my previous post about today's gathering, what follows are rough, semi-verbatim notes, along with my first impressions and comments. Unless I've put something in quotes, it's a paraphrase.

The first up is the Arkansas Recovery.gov site, presented by Claire Bailey, the state CTO. I'm sorry, but if this is meant to showcase the best the states are doing in "co-creating" better government by making Recovery spending data more transparent then we're, at best, only halfway there. While the site has lots of great search features, it's still keeping citizen input and collaboration safely under wraps. Here's a snippet from the site's description: "The site accepts public user feedback that is forwarded to the Arkansas Office of Recovery & Reinvestment - Submissions are sent to a automated tracking system and forwarded to the appropriate personal *Fraud & Abuse Reporting - The site provides users with a method to file a complaint on fraud and abuse of the recovery funds if they suspect improper use of funds - Reports are sent to an automated tracking system to be managed and investigated." And where are members of the public supposed to go after they've submitted their feedback?

Next up, Neighbors to Neighbors, a nonprofit group that connects neighbors to each other (duh) to help them solve local problems. It started in 2004 as a local social network in Jamaica Plain, MA, trying to address crime, and has grown to involve thousands of users. Its founder, Joseph Porcelli, has since partnered with the Mayor's office, and the project is about to go citywide. Interestingly, it's built on the free Ning.com platform, and Porcelli makes clear that N2N isn't a technology company but a problem-solving organization. This sounds great, but it also looks like a dodge; the city government isn't acting as a platform itself, but outsourcing the work to a nonprofit. That doesn't seem to be reinventing government much, though N2N certainly does good work.

Then we hear from Philip Ashlock of Open311, the effort to get municipalities and other government institutions to share vital public data on a common open standard. This is a great initiative because as cities start to follow Washington DC's example and open up their data streams, it would be far better if they all used a common standard, which would enable large-scale applications and businesses to build services around the information. I love this slogan: "911 for emergency action; 311 for emergent action." More power to you!

Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix presents next, demoing how to use his innovative site to report public service problems and get the information to the appropriate government officials. SeeClickFix is a great site, but I worry that it suffers from two problems: first, the "skyhook" issue: if it's not hooked into real government authorities with the responsibility and ability to fix problems, why should people participate? And that gets to the second problem, which is if the site isn't efficacious to early users, how can it grow? Ideally, some municipalities would adopt SeeClickFix to be their turnkey solution to developing government-as-a-platform web services, but as far as I know so far SCF hasn't gotten that kind of buy-in (though the New York Times and Boston Globe have put it on their websites). Maybe lightning will strike soon?

Last up, Melissa Jordan of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Finally, talk about government literally as a platform! She is one of two staffers whose job is to provide web services to engage and better serve their customers (340K riders a day). How do they do that? First, by being a timely and accurate source of information. Bart.gov is a real-time, interactive, user-focused website, for example--and if you take a look at it you'll have to agree it doesn't look like any other public transit site you've ever seen. (What other government site that you know of features tweets from the public about using it?) BART's data is open to public developers and many have developed apps with it. Second, by sharing what they see and hear on BART, helping to build a sense of a community, she notes. She then discusses some interesting problems that arise when riders use the trains in ways that are creative (graffiti) or whimsical (putting swings up inside trains) but definitely not legal. Seems the BART interactive staff came up with some nuanced ways of responding.

In the group discussion, the moderator Hilary Hartley of NIC asks a great question: What it will take for government entities to adopt some of these sites? Porcelli says that his research suggested that fewer people would trust Neighbors to Neighbors if it were run off of Boston.gov. This way his site is more grass-roots, he argues. Berkowitz says it is his hope to become exactly that kind of platform for government to use, and SeeClickFix is hard at work on an open API to enable that. Unfortunately, I didn't hear either of the government representatives (from Arkansas and San Francisco) on the panel answer the question.

So I got up to ask...

Imagine if BART.gov enabled riders to register on the site and affiliate by what stations they use ("adopt your home station"); that could foster all kinds of new community applications. Or imagine if Arkansas's Recovery.gov site didn't just accept public input but then invited the public to find out who else had similar concerns and gave them a chance to connect to each other? (In my view, government-as-a-platform needs to be about moving from a spokes-hub model to more of a genuinely open and networked model. Look how well that approach has served companies like Amazon, where you can connect with other product reviewers without the company's interference.)

Well, the answers look promising. Arkansas CTO Bailey said that she'd take the suggestion seriously and try to close the circle with her constituents. And BART's Jordan said that just such a social networking plan was in the works. Give us time; we've only been at this for a year! OK, fair enough. A year from now, let's hope at the next Gov 2.0 Expo we'll be seeing the fruits of these promises, and more.