Full-Service Government Comes to an End

Whether we like it or not, it’s time to expect less -- lots less -- from government.
by | November 2011

It is the kind of question that is usually answered when the city sends out a truck to investigate. On a snowy winter night, a resident reported the following incident to the city’s 311 system: “Possum in my trash can. Can’t tell if it’s dead. Barrel in back of 168 West 9th. How do I get this removed?”

Normally, the request would have been reviewed the next morning, triaged and added to the work queue for city crews. But it did not get that far. Rather than being called in to 311, the complaint arrived as a text message through Citizens Connect, Boston’s 311 mobile app for deputizing smartphone users to report graffiti, potholes and other problems. (Read more about the Boston officials behind Citizens Connect).

That night, Susan Labandibar, a local technology entrepreneur, community activist and self-described animal lover, was browsing through the service requests on Citizens Connect and, thanks to its integration with social media, could read the queries, complaints and requests that had been filed. She noticed the possum report was only three blocks away and decided to go for a walk. At 11:15 p.m., she tweeted out what happened next: “Possum? Check. Living? Yep. Turned the trash can on its side. Walked home. Good night, sweet possum.”

The real-time update effectively closed the ticket before the city got involved, which Labandibar says is the real point. “When people solve problems themselves and for each other, it makes the city a less faceless town by encouraging people to think that the city doesn’t have to solve every problem.”

It may also be a practical reality as the economic contraction threatens to put an end to full-service government as we have known it. Across the country in Palo Alto, Calif., City Manager Jim Keene says, “there is a growing realization that the city or county is one player but not the sole funding source or service provider.” He notes ever-greater reliance on “foundations and friends groups to support city programs and capital needs.”

His city also has an extensive network of neighborhood volunteers focused on disaster preparedness, sustainability education and related initiatives. “We [even] have citizen volunteers who run police cars to the vehicle maintenance yard for service and fueling,” says Keene, adding that having neighborhoods adopt medians and traffic circles could be next.

The list could get a lot longer too. In Longmont, Colo., 40 miles north of Denver, an internal analysis showed that up to 38 percent of the police department’s calls for service did not need a uniformed police officer -- they needed a neighbor.

Unfortunately neighborhoods don’t scale; and family and friends may be loyal, but their resources are finite. Technology, such as Boston’s Citizens Connect, does only so much. It’s been a long time since the pre-Depression days when charities played a significant role as service provider, touching the lives of a wide swath of Americans. We may need them to do that again. But will they? Can they? Or have they too become reliant on the same government funds that are not there anymore?

Government reformers have long contended that citizens want to be back in the public square. Desperate financial straits are creating openings for them as governments have been compelled to refocus on those things residents cannot do for themselves, with residents otherwise filling voids left open.

In a classic 1998 episode of the animated sitcom The Simpsons, Homer makes a misguided and failed bid to become Springfield’s elected sanitation commissioner under the slogan, “Let somebody else do it.” His use of the phrase was the lazy man’s mantra for having government empty the trash, remove rodents and do other things that have been professionalized over the years.

What we’re seeing now is the reversal of that. That “somebody else” is becoming us.

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