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The New Public Square

Fear inhibits conversation between citizens and government.

by / April 22, 2003
Despite well rehearsed talk about how digital government would transform the relationship between citizens and government, we have erred in treating citizens as consumers of both information and services delivered online. It appeared harder and messier to contemplate using the Internet's interactive attributes to engage citizens as people who might have something to say about public policy issues.

Perhaps it was fear of the unknown, or fear of a harsh critique from those we purported to serve. On advice of counsel, it was common to declare that the government "does not intend that [the portal or other] Web pages be open public forums."

It meant one less thing to worry about, but it limited the horizon to commodity-style transactions with citizens.

Such an arrangement is short of the "new civic engagement" long anticipated by authors such as Robert Putman, Joel Kotkin, Andrei Cherney and John Eger. For his part, Eger anticipates what he calls the rise of "cyber-places" to respond to "the 'reverse flow of sovereignty,' in which local governments are assuming more responsibility than ever before for their residents' well-being ..."

It is a complex business -- requiring collaboration across jurisdictions and conversations that begin in neighborhoods. People are faced with the essential task of reinvigorating the public square, which is known for low voter turnout, and getting Washington's attention by taking to the streets and the Internet.

An experiment in Tucson, Ariz., deserves attention. Deceptively simple, the city created an unmoderated online public forum on the most contentious issue of the day -- the budget.

The instructions were simple: "You are encouraged to offer suggestions, discuss issues and even air gripes." The city got what it asked for on each of the three fronts.

There was talk about trash and a little trash talk. (Tucson is one of those rare places where residents do not pay for trash pick up.)

No more, suggested a dozen or so writers.

"The council has to suck it up. This is so simple it hurts," said one.

Another detailed an 18-point plan, and a city employee offered his own "5 Sure-fire Tips to Help Reduce the Budget Crisis."

Among the most succinct: "CONSOLIDATE! CONSOLIDATE! CONSOLIDATE! That's my nickel's worth!!"

A scroll through the messages reveals ideas about water, schools, public safety, and back-and-forth debates on the tax burden and service cuts -- punctuated by the occasional verbal jab at an elected official or city manager. It was, in short, a conversation -- and a self-policing one.

Writers took it upon themselves to scold each other for trying to spoil these new commons. "Isn't it wonderful?" wrote one contributor. "The city reaches out to its citizens for comments regarding the state of the city and [gets postings that are] belittling, jabbing, crabbing, venting and whining. What started out as a great idea, even symbolically, has turned into another forum in which people ... attack others' opinions."

Though Tucson is not alone, such an experiment is a hard sell in other places. The uncivil tone worries public officials -- even though they hear worse at public meetings. They also worry about additional workload, and the dubious value of the input -- citing orchestrated postcardlike campaigns used to overwhelm campus mail, switchboards and e-mail servers at the seat of government.

None of that happened in Tucson, where the city put up a sign in their cyber-place and courageously said: "Talk to me."

Perhaps overwhelming switchboards and servers is only necessary when the other party to a conversation isn't listening. As Tucson CIO Todd Sander is fond of saying, "There's a lesson in there for those who are paying attention."

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., , is the chief strategy officer of the Center for Digital Government, former deputy state CIO of Washington and a veteran of startups.

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Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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