April 16, 2014

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Inject New Energy into Problem Solving – Principle #8 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

In response to my recent post arguing that the Federal government needs to use the social web more effectively as a tool for improving information sharing between the Federal government and the public, Michael Herz from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law reached out and directed me to a comprehensive report he recently authored for the consideration of the Administrative Conference of the United States entitled “Using Social Media in Rulemaking: Possibilities and Barriers.” One of Mr. Herz’s colleagues described the report’s tone as one of “skeptical optimism.” Mr. Herz asked me specifically about the role of social media in the Federal agency rulemaking process. In short, I generally agree with his statement that “social media culture is at odds with the fundamental characteristics of notice-and-comment rulemaking” because filing insightful comments requires “time, thought, study of the agency proposal and rationale, articulating reasons rather than…off-the-top-of-one’s-head assertions of a bottom line.” Social media, we both agree, however, is a valuable tool for Federal agencies to use to inform the public – particularly those people or groups whom the agency believes may have a vested interest in ongoing rulemakings.

Our e-mail exchange has me thinking now about why many governments and residents are embracing technology-based solutions for urban problems whereas the Federal government, as exemplified by the problems with the Affordable Care Act implementation, has not been as effective in using the Internet, wireless technology and social media to deliver services to the public. Today, I will discuss three reasons why it is easier to inject new energy into technology-based problem solving in local communities.

First, constituent service is critical to the success of local politicians. As Mr. Herz states, “[p]oliticians want – indeed, need – to be seen as providing direct, tangible benefits to constituents.” Almost everyone in a city knows whether their trash was picked up on-time or if the snow plow came through and there are electoral consequences for not delivering. In contrast, while I think almost every citizen would like to see Federal agencies regulate as effectively and efficiently as possible, it would be virtually impossible to reach agreement across the political spectrum about what constitutes superb agency rulemaking.

Mayors around the country are welcoming outside experts such as Code for America Fellows or academics partnering on short term projects into their offices to assist them in improving service delivery. Mayors are hoping that these experts’ values and skills allow city leaders to take on more ambitious projects than they could on their own. I spoke with Emily Lieb, a Bloomberg Innovation Fellow in Atlanta, and members of her team earlier this year. Emily’s team is working to develop a new 311 customer service system for Atlanta, scheduled to become operational in Spring 2014. In the News Release announcing a new customer service model and the beginning of 311 implementation, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said, “All Atlanta residents and visitors should expect and receive best-in-class customer service every time they interact with the city.” In working to meet that goal, Emily’s team has been changing communications strategies, internal processes and making information on Atlanta’s website more user-friendly, particularly for business licensing, by adding interactive tools that teach residents what to expect throughout the process.

Second, as a result of local governments’ smaller size and service delivery-focused culture, outside experts can more quickly introduce innovative ideas and change the culture of an organization. As Atlanta has sought to improve its customer service, Emily told me that the Mayor created a 311 Call Center Governance Board to ensure that everyone at “the Executive level,” including other elected officials accountable to their constituents across the city, was continually informed about the initiative. Emily felt that the biggest challenge to institutionalizing the internal customer service changes in Atlanta’s government was not other elected officials, but winning over skeptical mid-level the managers. If mid-level management supports the initiative, then it can continue to be successful once the Fellows are gone.

The third reason it is easier to inject new energy into technology-based problem solving in local communities is that the very things that social media and e-mail groups do well – creating new on-line communities and allowing existing communities to stay connected – are a great fit for urban areas where people are often located close together physically and may even share common goals or concerns, but often don’t know each other. Social media and e-mail groups eliminate the information inefficiencies that in the past made taking collective action to solve a problem very difficult or time-consuming. In addition, in many neighborhoods, people have been using digital technology to share information for a decade. A local government adopting technology-based problem solving, therefore, appears to residents to be the natural evolution of the relationship between citizens and government.

As the person responsible for improving the usefulness of Atlanta’s social media platforms, one of Anne Torres’s goals has been to define what platforms are best for certain content and audiences. She told me that Twitter is good, for example, for sharing links highlighting positive aspects of the city and providing information on how to pay bills, including traffic tickets. In contrast, Facebook is useful for sharing photos of public events and information about activities of Atlanta’s government that people otherwise wouldn’t know about. Internally, Ms. Torres set up a style guide for city employees and held a government social media summit to get people on board. Agencies across the city are all working through Hootsuite. If a resident is asking the City to fix a leak in the street, Hootsuite sends flags to the right organization within the government. The Mayor’s office can monitor information from all dashboards and, for example, track constituent requests that come in through Twitter.

By no means is it impossible for the Federal government to do be innovative in its delivery of constituent services. There are successes such as the highly regarded Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website, which was created in part by people hired through a two-year fellowship program for “developers, graphic designers and UX pros.” The Presidential Innovation Fellows program brings together innovators from the private sector, non-profits and academia to work in government for 6-13 months to help develop solutions to difficult technical problems. At this moment though, Mayors are government’s leaders in finding innovative ways to use the Internet, wireless technology and social media to deliver services to their constituents. It’s time for the Federal government to catch up.

Comments

  1. Fhalyshia says:

    I think this is a very interesting argument that you have made, and I find your topic very relevant to things that my Digital Ethics class has been discussing in the past week. We recently watched a presentation given by university professor Zeynep Tufekci on the effectiveness of social media-fueled activism, and one of her arguments is that while social media is an effective means of gathering attention for a cause, it is not necessarily as effective in terms of building a capacity to undertake the protest to the next level of change and delegation. The process of change begins with awareness and publicity, then engagement and organization, and then pressure which finally results in change. Generally, social media outlets are a phenomenal means of voicing our causes and garnering more enthusiasm or interest from a wider audience. However, this method can also result in more ‘slacktivism’ than actual follow up; people hit share or ‘like’ something and no longer feel any real motivation to take the cause to the next step. Do you see the concept of slacktivism possibly having any kind of effect on the use of technology-based problem solving among communities and the Federal government?