What if a city government had a Web site where citizens could report problems and view the status and priority order of those problems in real time?

Indeed the concept might seem contrary to the common notion of government as a guarded bureaucratic fortress, where citizen requests to the city go to die. But that's the idea behind the program from Code for America (CFA), a new nonprofit backed by Tim O'Reilly (who popularized the term "Web 2.0"). In 2011, CFA will give Web 2.0 solutions to selected local governments in an effort to improve transparency, efficiency and citizen participation.

"From the citizens' perspective, if you call in to a department now, your requests go into a black hole," said Jennifer Pahlka, CFA's executive director and founder. "You should be able to know at any given time where your request sits. You should be able to interact with government. We're looking for a way that data can be generated by the citizens and back to the city in a way that saves costs and time."

For the program, CFA plans to recruit 25 fellows -- developers, designers and product managers from the Web industry -- who will work in teams to create Web 2.0 solutions for five chosen cities. Any city that wants to receive such a solution must submit an application to the organization by Feb. 1, 2010.

Making Data Flow Both Ways

CFA is the latest wave in the growing government 2.0 movement, joining the ranks of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's Data.gov site and innovation contests like Apps for Democracy and Apps for America, where citizens can create shared applications using public-sector data and win prizes.

Like these Gov 2.0 models and other open government initiatives, CFA seeks to build a platform that demolishes the wall between governments and the people they serve. But a key difference with CFA is that Pahlka hopes to develop solutions that allow citizens to create their own data rather than build applications from government-generated data.

For example, in a city with a pothole problem, a resident might typically call the public works or transportation department. Those calls take time and cost money. But with a Web 2.0 solution, a city Web site could let people upload photos of specific potholes, vote on which ones should be fixed first and view progress reports for free.

"This information saves you a further phone call and gives you insight into the way a city is fixing things," Pahlka said. "Transparency becomes a way that you drive efficiency."

For the program, one city has already applied for a solution to help citizens choose online which blighted properties need attention. Santa Cruz, Calif., wants a Web 2.0 makeover for its permitting and planning process to make it easier for residents to start local businesses.

These examples represent the types of solutions that CFA hopes to implement. But cities must pinpoint a specific problem area before developers can figure out how to make that area more efficient.

"We'll help them turn that into a real project and build it for them," she said, "but it needs to be city-driven or else it won't work."

Moving Beyond 'Vending Machine Government'

The selected cities will have to pay a participation fee, which will cover the stipends for the developers. For the most part, the Web teams will work from the CFA headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, they will spend February 2011 living and learning in their respective "client" cities. One of the goals, Pahlka added, is to "graduate a generation of technology leaders who get government."

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer