Civic Engagement: Your Next Technology 'Sweet Spot'?

Online services are fine, but they've become old hat. It's time to use new technology tools to make government more transparent and collaborative.
May 6, 2009
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Developing an effective relationship between chief executive officers and chief information officers has for years been the greatest challenge to making real progress with information technology in government. CXOs -- be they governors, mayors, budget directors or department heads -- often are suspicious about the necessity of IT projects, viewing them as lengthy, risky and largely invisible to the public. CIOs get frustrated that CXOs either ignore IT or see it as a "silver bullet" solution. This troubled relationship results in a lack of the committed leadership necessary to make change happen.

In the past, projects that have been successful have focused on Internet-delivered services -- service delivery, rather than service production, has been the target for change. CIOs and vendors were effective at extending and using network infrastructure, while CXOs found that "anytime, anywhere" services were easy to produce and well received by the public. Service delivery thus became the "sweet spot" for agreements among managers, the technology community and the public. "Online, not in line" was the battle cry. But where do we go from there?

Economic conditions are now truly awful, and online services have become old hat. Budgets, staffing and entire missions are under fire. Isn't it time to hunker down?

Well, yes ... at least somewhat. Now is not a time for anything frivolous or deferrable, but we cannot overlook the opportunity to move "beyond online." A key priority for CXO and CIO collaboration should be to continue applying new technology to create deeper relationships between government and the public. The new focus should move beyond the one-way transactions of service delivery and toward the more complex two-way interactions of civic engagement.

The Obama campaign made powerful, early moves on this front. Before last year, political campaigns used technology for the back-office work of administration, mass communications and donor lists. The Obama innovation involved using Web 2.0 tools for massive peer-to-peer networking, fundamentally changing the political-organization game. Using constantly updated and peer-provided content, the campaign enticed volunteers not just to donate funds, but also to network with other supporters locally and internationally, plan events, blog and become fundraisers themselves. Blogs, wikis, YouTube and social networking dramatically reduced the cost and time required for engaging and mobilizing support.

The question now is: How effective will net-enabled civic engagement be as it migrates from campaigns to governance? Achieving IT-enabled civic engagement will not be as simple as the easy and early wins of "online, not in line," but the engagement agenda should nonetheless become critically important in a variety of federal, state, local and international settings. It should develop around making government more transparent, participatory and collaborative.

To accomplish this, we must expand the public's role in order to mobilize and clarify support for the most difficult changes ahead. It will require sound political judgment and strong leadership, but to our advantage we have powerful new tools at our disposal and a generation of citizens with new skills and expectations primed to interact with government in this fashion.

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