The Third Wave of Civic Reform

Evidence joins efficiency, effectiveness and engagement as a hallmark of good government.

by / September 28, 2015

It’s more than a truism: Our lives are intertwined with one another like never before. The Internet and new forms of technology literally have put the world within reach, and it’s transforming the way we make decisions about everything from our purchases at the grocery store to the way we consume entertainment.

This new level of interconnectedness and shared knowledge also changes the relationship we have with our elected officials and how we address complicated policy issues. While we are all swimming in more information than we ever knew existed, a challenge for those working in the public sector comes in making sense of it and putting it to use in our government, our politics and our communities.

Are we harnessing this new power of information effectively, efficiently and fairly? What are we learning from the data we’re gathering? How is data-based decision-making changing the way our communities meet their challenges?

At the Sunlight Foundation, we’ve worked for more than nine years to demonstrate the value and potential of government data that is open and accessible. We believe making data truly available online will be transformative, particularly for local governments and the communities they serve. I’ve been working to improve local government for many years, and I see using data for results-driven management to be the next wave in the 100-year-old effort to reform the way cities are run.

Since the beginning of the Progressive Era, people and organizations have worked to improve the functions of the cities and communities they govern. Reformers created institutions like the National Civic League that sought to end the corruption and graft that plagued local governments in the late 1800s. They professionalized city management by establishing the council-manager form of government and codified best practices through the Model City Charter.

A second major wave of municipal reform came in the 1970s and ’80s, when cities moved beyond “public input” and began experimenting with building civic engagement and deliberative democracy into their policymaking processes. Like the first wave of city reform, the second wave sought to improve municipal efficiency and effectiveness. But this period also witnessed growing interest in civic engagement and a more collaborative approach to governance. If the first wave of reform emphasized what the city management field calls the “double E” of efficiency and effectiveness, the second wave added another E: engagement.

We have a monumental opportunity right now to improve the lives of people in cities across America and fundamentally alter our understanding of what good local government should look like. We’ll add a fourth E — evidence — to the conversation by helping cities incorporate data into their internal and public-facing conversations about city priorities. Improving access to information and data provides an opportunity to re-establish trust in government and engage residents in meaningful conversations, as well as to improve the effectiveness of city services.

An organization built around open data advocacy, the Sunlight Foundation is working to help give cities the tools and support they need to elevate their use of data and evidence, thus allowing them to improve civic engagement and local decision-making. To develop better solutions for the problems we face at the local level and beyond, we are part of a growing movement that is helping our governments become better at using the information they already collect and sharing it widely with their citizens.

Through the What Works Cities initiative, we’ll work with more than 100 midsized American communities over the next three years to help them make the connections between good open data and open government policies and practices.

This movement toward open data is a transformational foundation on which cities can build. It’s our hope that, looking back 100 years from now, we’ll see a moment in history that fundamentally improved the function of local governments, and most importantly, the lives of their citizens.

Chris Gates Contributing Writer

Chris Gates previously served as the president of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable. He stepped down in January 2016. Gates is a thought leader in the fields of democratic theory and practice and political and civic engagement.