E-Gov's New Gear

Governors and mayors learn to love the give and take of governing interactively.
by | March 2004

As groundbreaking ceremonies go, Martin O'Malley's event atop a bridge in Baltimore last August began in typical fashion. The mayor, reading from prepared remarks, celebrated the upcoming restoration of the 70- year-old steel-arch bridge. But then the event took an unusual turn: O'Malley, who had not yet seen the proposed design for the bridge, unveiled an illustration for the cameras and winced at its lollipop look and red color.

The design had been picked long before O'Malley took office, but now that painting was about to begin, the mayor desperately wanted the color changed. He knew better than to get into a fight about taste, so he put the matter up to a public vote on the city's Web site. For a week in October, citizens could pick between two schematics of the bridge: the original version with the arch bathed in rusty red or a new rendering with the bridge painted a bright Kelly green, which happened to be O'Malley's choice. More than 5,000 votes came in, but green lost.

To be sure, Baltimore's bridge poll wasn't exactly a bold transformational moment for democracy. Still, it was one small step toward something that could rightly be called interactive government. Most e-government services today amount to little more than paper processes reconfigured for the Internet. A Web poll, on the other hand, gives citizens a new outlet for influencing decision making. It is the sort of high-minded idea technologists have been promoting for years, but which states, cities and counties have been slow, even reluctant, to put into action.

More and more, however, they're trying out new modes of interactivity, channeling public participation both over the Internet and in face-to-face high-tech town hall meetings. It's not just small choices over paint color that are at stake but big decisions about how to spend billion-dollar budgets. "We're moving from e-government to e- democracy," says Beth Simone Noveck, a professor at New York Law School. "The first generation of technology delivered revenue- generating services such as licensing and permitting. Now we're talking about tools that give citizens greater voice in the process."

These flashy new tools--from government simulation games to remote- control clickers--can give state and local officials a quick, if not perfect, read on public opinion. They're also geared toward eliciting more focused thoughts from citizens--input that can sometimes be more useful to decision makers. They can improve upon public hearings that, especially at the local level, too often dissolve into shouting matches among the handful of concerned citizens who bother to show up. The tools serve not only the public but also the political motives of officeholders such as O'Malley who like to remind voters that they're listening to what the public is saying.


Governments are cautious about moving toward interactive government and with fair reason. It's not yet clear how technology may alter the relationship between citizens and the people who govern them, or whether the new dynamic will necessarily be any better than the present one. Plus, some of the new methods for gauging public opinion simply aren't foolproof. In Baltimore's bridge poll, for example, nothing could stop people from voting more than once. Nor could any city official verify that the people voting were actually citizens of Baltimore. "There's a danger in assuming that information you get from a Web-based or e-mail solicitation represents the whole community," says Sharon Dawes, director of the Center for Technology in Government in Albany, New York. "It's a good way to get information, but that needs to be supplemented with more traditional ways of getting public opinion."

Baltimore officials were aware of the shortcomings, but didn't they see them as a barrier. In order to vote, people had to provide an e- mail address. Duplicates were thrown out. Yet nothing could stop someone with two or more e-mail addresses from voting multiple times. "It wasn't ironclad," admits city webmaster Frank Perrelli. "But it was good enough to give us an indication of where people stood. If someone felt strongly enough that they had to vote five times, then God bless 'em. We weren't out to win."

Moreover, there are unseen opportunities in the two-way process. Baltimore's interactive approach, for instance, takes advantage of e- mail to glean more focused feedback from certain constituents. O'Malley, who has been e-mailing weekly newsletters to local business and community leaders, recently began attaching surveys asking for reactions on particular issues. For example, after the mayor heard about Richard Florida's well-known book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," he asked subscribers for their thoughts on how to encourage arts and culture in Baltimore. About 50 people responded with thoughtful suggestions, ranging from buying paint and easels for artists to rehabbing some old buildings into an "Artists Row." By any measure, the responses were more focused and useful than the typical batch of unsolicited e-mail. Now, Perrelli is conducting an e-mail survey to see if people are finding what they're looking for on Baltimore's Web site. "There's no way to govern efficiently if you don't have a daily dose of feedback from folks," Perrelli says.

An increasingly popular way to gauge public opinion is through the use of simulation games. For example, when Maine Governor John Baldacci took office last year and immediately faced a $1 billion budget deficit, he asked his information technology staff to develop a budget-balancing game for citizens to play on the state's Web site. What they came up with was not only a tool for interactivity but also for civic education. And for government geeks, it was even a little fun.

On one side of the screen, players saw a list of the programs Maine spends money on. On the other side, they saw taxes and other sources of state revenue. In the middle was the exact amount of the deficit: $1,078,556,945. As players cut expenses or raised taxes, the deficit number adjusted until it withered down to zero. Then by clicking "send," a player could fire off the mix of budget choices, along with an e-mail, to Baldacci, who was still drafting his own budget plan at the time.

More than 10,000 people played the game, although only 1,200 actually sent in their proposals. If the number of responses was a bit disappointing, however, the quality of the feedback was more fine- tuned than usual. That's because the budget game forced these citizens to consider something that most people miss when they complain about taxing and spending: context. For his part, Baldacci has said he found the public's suggestions useful. It's also safe to say, since the Democratic governor had already pledged not to raise taxes, that he filtered the feedback through his own biases. In his budget address to the legislature last year, Baldacci neglected to mention the advice of citizens who thought raising taxes preferable to cutting programs. "I have gone through these messages," he said. "The ideas on consolidation, restructuring and making cuts were very thoughtful."


If constituents aren't generally engaged in the budget process, then the nebulous world of agency rulemaking is even more impenetrable. Issuing rules and regulations is an important part of what states do, but the process is an insider's game played mostly by lobbyists and lawyers representing affected industries. Virginia is trying to open up the game to a wider public by bringing the rulemaking process online and making it more interactive.

The "regulatory town hall," as this effort is known, has been developing in stages since 1999. The first step was simply to put all the paper online, so agencies now post all of their rules, supporting documents and public comments on proposed rules on the Web at www.townhall.state.va.us. The next step is directing information to pertinent parties. People can sign up to receive an e-mail telling them whenever regulatory activity is occurring on an issue they're interested in.

The third step is to improve and widen the public's engagement in the issues. Virginia wants the public-comment process itself to be more engaging so that more people are involved and the rules are written to accommodate a wide range of concerns. "The ultimate goal is to increase the quality of the rules, as well as to increase the perception of the legitimacy and fairness of the rulemaking process," says Jay Lagarde, a senior analyst with the state department of planning and budget.

How will that happen? One tactic Virginia is trying is to turn the comment process into something that almost resembles an Internet chat room: As comments roll in online, they are publicly accessible--as opposed to the usual method of sending individual letters to a government agency. "In the past, comments were made in a vacuum," says Bill Shobe, another of the system's developers. "Electronic comment forms allow participants to see comments others have made and for their own comments to be informed by what others have said."

The federal government has its own e-rulemaking initiative, which has captured the fancy of many academics who see e-rulemaking as the lynchpin of interactive government. In a paper released last year, Harvard professor Cary Coglianese suggested that e-rulemaking could move toward a system that he calls "regulatory polling," which would use computer surveys to solicit public comments, similar to the way Baltimore decided the bridge color question. Another suggestion from Coglianese: Take the core of the rulemaking process out of the hands of bureaucrats and give it over to "virtual juries" of randomly selected citizens who sort through comments electronically and decide on regulations over the Internet.

State and local governments are watching the federal e-rulemaking approach The feds' Web site, www.regulations.gov, could become a model for their own efforts. In addition, state and local agencies are frequent consumers of the federal regulatory process, especially from the two federal agencies that are farthest along with e-rulemaking, the environmental protection and transportation departments.


The new interactivity doesn't have to take place online. Deploying the same sort of gadgets that some advertisers use in focus groups, public officials are finding they can get instant feedback on their policies and priorities.

Since Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm came into office last year, for example, she has had to address successive budget shortfalls, each of them as bad or worse than the one Baldacci had in Maine. Rather than take to the Internet, Granholm hit the road--and the airwaves. Last February, she held a series of public forums around the state, followed by another round of locally televised forums in November. At each meeting, before groups of 30 to 100 people, she presented the grim budget reality and, since she too had foresworn a tax hike, offered lists of possible budget items to cut. She then asked participants to use a blue handheld keypad to vote on which items they would cut first.

Granholm took the stage with what has been described as an "Oprah- like flourish." While the governor clearly appreciated the public relations value of the exercise, however, it wasn't all for show. Voting results were tabulated immediately, revealing a few surprises. A college crowd in Grand Rapids, for example, was willing to cut scholarship funding. Meanwhile, not one of the 500 citizens who participated statewide wanted mental health services cut. "The social safety net was the last thing the audience wanted cut," says Liz Boyd, the governor's spokeswoman, adding that Granholm used these results as leverage when negotiating a final round of budget cuts in December.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams is perhaps the nation's biggest believer in the high-tech town hall meeting. In the past few years, Williams has hosted three so-called "citizen summits," with 3,000 people from all over the city attending each daylong event. At the most recent one in November, a large room at the city's convention center was set up like a theater-in-the-round, with the mayor on center stage and citizens seated at tables around him. Video screens showed the mayor as he talked through various issue areas--public safety, education, jobs, housing and health care--and presented several policy options for each. Using wireless keypads, participants registered their preferences, which were tallied by a central computer and broadcast on large screens.

Citizen input wasn't limited to voting on the mayor's ideas. Participants also made free-form suggestions by typing them into a laptop computer on each table. Those comments were fed into a central computer bank manned by 12 people, the so-called "theme team" who scanned the feedback for trends and recurring ideas. On the topic of jobs, for example, Williams had offered only three policy options, but the people in this room apparently wanted a fourth: raising the minimum wage. That option was then added to the mix and subsequently outpolled any of the mayor's suggestions. "At every meeting, they add comments and priorities," Williams says. "We revise our strategic plans based on the input we get here."

These highly stage-managed hearings, with their rich production values, aren't easy to put on. The November event required the efforts of dozens of technical experts and production staff and hundreds of volunteers, and cost more than $1 million. Williams, however, argues that it's a worthwhile expenditure. "How much do we spend to run a mayor's office? Or a city council?" he says. "Well, the public is a decision-making body, too. These dollars are well spent."

D.C.'s citizen summits and the other nascent tools of interactive government are indeed giving the public new ways to be heard. But the reason why state and local governments will keep adopting these ideas has as much to do with cold, hard politics as it does with warm- hearted reasoning. After all, these interactive tools further the interests of politicians, too.