Despite Web 2.0 and Social Networking, Governments Must Truly Collaborate With Citizens (Opinion)

Local government must work with citizens to meet their needs.

by / June 17, 2009

I recently attended a national conference of local government officials in which I heard a county manager talk about how it's time to move beyond the "illusion of inclusion." Specifically he was alluding to the common practice of government officials collecting public comment on various issues - like rezoning, budgeting and major policy initiatives - all the while knowing the key decisions had already been made. It really struck a chord with me. During my time in state and local government, I too was guilty of propagating the charade, knowing all I really wanted was the political fig leaf that came from saying I had run a "participatory" process.

It's a dangerous and self-serving practice that is fortunately becoming more difficult to maintain as Web 2.0 and social networking technologies work their way into people's day-to-day lives. The changes brought forth by these tools is the very point that county manager was making. As people take the opportunity to connect with one another, express their opinions and make themselves heard well outside of official public comment channels, the officials who routinely play the "expert card" and choose to ignore the voices of interested parties risk losing touch with those they are sworn and paid to serve.

Ignoring the general public is bad enough, but governments even ignore one another. The federal government ignores the states; in turn, states ignore their counties, cities and towns, who also ignore one another. That's one of the reasons the Digital Communities Digital Infrastructure Task Force recently wrote a white paper titled Opportunity in Crisis: Consolidation, Collaboration & Cooperation in Local Government. It highlights a few examples of governments working together to share their strengths and pool their resources to improve service delivery. And it covers some compelling reasons why a shift toward a collaboration or shared services model makes increasingly more sense.

To fully embrace a collaborative strategy, however, requires strong leadership, informed decision-making, a focus on execution and clear communication. The challenge doesn't lie with technology, but rather with those who are worried about the implications of a shrinking work force, the need to develop new skill sets with new responsibilities and the potential implications for traditional structures like employee union agreements.

The success or failure of any collaborative effort is largely determined by whether public employees are willing to take up the challenge of change and break down historical barriers that support organizational individuality at the expense of the common good. Ego and turf have simply become too expensive to protect and maintain.

This isn't to suggest that collaboration or consolidation efforts aren't without real challenges. Local government is about local control. Something that's a priority in one community and deemed worthy of receiving a fair portion of limited resources may not be a priority to a neighboring community. Conflicting priorities can make collaboration difficult. But if governments don't accept the challenge, they run the risk of being overtaken by citizen-driven self-help systems that make government less relevant. For many, it's a case of "my system meets my needs and so it's something for which I will pay." The next town, adjacent county or neighboring state likely will have a slightly different view of priorities and will have established a different support system. The difficult question becomes, "Who is willing to change in order to share?" It's an important question, but only to those inside government.

For that singular group of taxpayers who are residents of the city, county and state, there's a growing realization that often they are being asked to fund duplicative or unnecessarily redundant systems. Perhaps at one time they may have been necessary for individual governments to maintain control, but now many of them can and should be combined - if not done

away with completely.

As governments accept the challenge of becoming more flexible and providing more affordable service, it's possible - at least in some areas - the days of big, single-purpose stand-alone systems may be over. Disk space, bandwidth and computing power are shifting from asset investments to commodity purchases.

"People both inside and outside government - especially Generation X and Generation Y - are incredibly frustrated by being able to use lightning-fast apps [at home] like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook that don't even live on their hard drives, while the government and other large organizations still operate clunky PCs, space-limited e-mail accounts and sluggish e-mail servers," said Dan Munz, a project manager for the National Academy of Public Administration Collaboration Project.

As the public becomes more familiar with Web 2.0 technologies and their effective deployment through popular social networking sites, expectations for electronic interaction continue to rise. This places a greater burden on government to create service delivery systems and interfaces that meet those expectations. Government will need to keep pace in order to satisfy constituents and attract a new generation to public service. The historical approach to technology acquisition and implementation is simply too complicated and expensive to continue. The answer for local government is further consolidation, collaboration and cooperation.

However, perhaps the most important point made in the white paper is that any collaboration effort begins with the willingness to reach out to those around you and honestly listen to them. It takes time and, admittedly, sometimes you will hear some goofy stuff; but you also may find kindred spirits who share the same goals and desires you do and who are willing and able to contribute to your success - if only you ask and are willing to listen. And maybe the biggest benefit is that during these trying financial times, it doesn't even cost much.

Todd Sander Executive Director, Center for Digital Government

Todd Sander is Executive Director of the Center for Digital Government, and is responsible for driving the strategic direction and development of the Center's programs and for providing thought leadership and hands-on expertise in expanding the Center’s services to both government and industry.