Good Government Through Tech Engaging People to Make Government Better By Peter Herr

I just finished reading Gavin Newsom's new book "Citizenville - How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government". You can read my review of it here. Newsom is a successful businessman, two time mayor of San Francisco and current Lt. Governor of California. It got me wondering. Can we put some of those ideas to practice right here in Western New York.

Newsom's whole premise is that technology allows for government to be more accessible and useful to citizens. In times of tight money, which we most assuredly are in, if government opens up the treasure trove of data it collects, citizens and entrepreneurs will take the ball and run with it, making all sorts of good things. Often, they will do it for free, because they want to create something great for themselves to use, or cool to meet their kids' needs.

In a recent planning meeting for TEDxBuffalo, we discussed how many people in Buffalo have at least two jobs, only one of which, they actually get paid for. (The volunteer committee that puts together TEDxBuffalo is a perfect example.) So many people in the Queen City do so many things like sitting on the boards of small community foundations, arranging Pop-up Playgrounds, mentoring, volunteering, activism and so much more. There is a veritable army of people working for the good of our community, and not making a cent doing it.

I mentioned the book to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and he expressed frustration that he often gets more responses to tweets about the Bills or the Sabres than he does about any government initiatives. Newsom contends that is because there is little to no trust in government.

"Right now our government has a credibility problem. It's not trustworthy. Politicians don't always do what they say, and tend to fall back on scare tactics, political positioning and posturing. People are sick of hypocrisy and sick of wondering who's telling the truth and who's telling tales to get themselves re-elected," says Newsom.

Technology has the chance to change that. Transparency is becoming more and more the norm because citizen journalists can report on things as they happen, before the events get sent through the spin machine. We don't need to wait until the late edition of the newspaper comes out or until the six o'clock news to hear what happened. When the Bills or Sabres make a trade, I hear about it well before the traditional news venues can get it out there. Recently, someone tweeted that the Bills weren't going to tender an offer to WR David Nelson. Nelson responded that he had heard no such thing. The next day the Bills announced they would not. That kind of instant information sharing can be used to make government be more honest and serve constituents better.

Here's a few examples of great government. One of the foundations in San Francisco sponsored the "Summer of Smart", a three month program putting designers, computer coders and activists together to develop apps for the city. Why can't we do that here?

Philadelphia has amazing murals throughout the city. They managed to build an iPhone app for people to find the murals and provide educational information about the art. Plenty of great public art in Western New York.....Herd About Buffalo, Carvings for a Cause... displays real-time information about parking availability and pricing (which, by the way, changes by demand) so that people can eliminate driving around in circles. God knows, this would be beneficial in WNY.

And the coolest of all is the City of Manor, Texas, that instituted a game mechanism by which people earn "Innobucks" by providing suggestions for fixing city problems. Innobucks are a civic currency that can be used to purchase things like a ride along with police or being mayor for the day. How does this work? Good question....real people spent close to a billion real dollars last year on fake farm tools for their fake Farmville farms. Manor just used that same game mentality to improve real neighborhoods, not fake farms, and people bought in.

One of Buffalo's natural resources is smart people. The Z80 Labs Tech Incubator is full of smart people. CoWork Buffalo, is full of smart people. That's just two of the many places that have sprung up over the past year or so. Secondly, people from Buffalo love Buffalo. Local pride is high here, and that's another natural resource.

Good elected officials are taking to the social media circuit. Guys like Newark, New Jersey's Mayor Cory Booker, and even our own County Executive Mark Poloncarz are frequent flyers on Facebook and Twitter. That makes them more accessible. What makes them unique is they manage their own Twitter accounts and interact with people. They talk with people, not to them.

I wonder what happens when we start to put together smart people, with government data, local pride, and accessible officials? If we ask people to participate, the worst they can say is "no". Incidentally, right before I read this book, two of my most conservative friends said something to the effect of "I'd pay more taxes if I knew it was only going to debt reduction"... I wonder if the government implemented a "Round Down for Reduction" program how many people would round their refund down to the nearest $10 or $100 mark if the rest went straight to pay down the national debt. I know I would.

Moral of the story is that we just need to ask people to help government innovate. We need to elect officials that are onboard with community involvement. And we need to give our time to make our governments work better.

Near the end of the book Newsom says, "In other words, we need contests, X Prizes, politically oriented social-networking sites, and government app stores - all the things in the private sector that have been proven to generate excitement, creativity, and great innovation from ordinary people. These are the ways we can reignite the public's passion for civic engagement."

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