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Beyond Shovelware: Finding the Right Tools for Engagement

City governments face increased demand to “do engagement,” without the corresponding investment in capacity.

Increasingly, city governments are being called upon to “do engagement.” Typically this means communicating with constituents about the work they’re doing; providing opportunities for people to give feedback on policies and plans; and enabling people to take actions by reporting, organizing or advocating.

This gradually building expectation that government should be responsive to residents is connected to much larger social trends: increased distrust in public institutions, a culture of connectivity prompted by the social Web, and increased expectations of social and responsive systems (think of all those apps in your pocket). In short, technology is motivating new expectations in customer service, and government is being called upon to meet those expectations.

It’s a shift cities in the City Accelerator’s second cohort are tasked with addressing. The challenge is twofold: 1) busy people in government whose jobs have little to do with civic participation are being asked to facilitate and consider it; and 2) the institutions in which they work are typically not set up to effectively receive and respond to input. In short, there is increased demand (both from within and outside of government) to “do engagement,” without the corresponding investment in capacity.

Government is not alone in this situation. Nearly every industry that deals with information or service delivery is confronting the problem of what Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff refers to as a “mutation” – a fundamental shift in the underlying structure of the economy. The distributed, connected qualities of the new, networked economy are distinct from the Fordist principles of efficiency and mass production they are replacing. Every industry and every sector has had to consider the best way to be responsive to these underlying mutations.

A good example of this is when newspapers first transitioned to the Web. In 1996, The New York Times put its content online. This was a big move in that it presented a real challenge to the second half of the word “news-paper.” Without the paper, the business of news was fundamentally different; and while reader expectations were changing quickly, the industry continued to merely deliver the paper’s content online.

These early efforts have become known as shovelware, meaning, they simply took newspaper content and shoveled it online, without any consideration of the distinct values and format of the new medium.1 It took years for the industry to grow into the new structure of the Web, and one could argue by looking at the state of newspapers today, that this transition was not entirely successful. We are well into this transition in government, with organizations such as Code for America leading the charge, and we are beginning to realize the Web is just a symptom of an underlying mutation. The online/offline question is not the most important one – the important questions are how are people interfacing differently with government and how is government changing to accommodate it?

The big problems of e-government or Gov 2.0, despite not being fully realized, are relatively straightforward – take what is done offline and shovel it online so it can reach a baseline of efficiency. There is huge value in this, just as there was value for newspapers in initially moving content online. But the challenge now is getting beyond the shovel, and being able to recognize and confront that underlying mutation. We need to understand anew what people’s expectations are, what networks they exist within, and where and how people are empowered to take action. As the call to “do engagement” grows ever more intense, it is imperative that we not automatically reach for the shovel, but instead reach for the tool that’s right for the job (which may in some cases include a shovel). 

This shouldn’t be done in isolation. People in government need to work together to collectively build a context for value – in other words, there needs to be agreement on why and how the public should be engaged, so there can be agreement about how it is assessed and how value is assigned to it.

Pressures on government institutions are significant right now to open up and to engage the public, but it would be a disservice to those we intend to engage if we didn’t stop to recognize where these pressures were coming from and how to adequately address the root causes. Returning to the twofold challenge: 1) busy people in government asked to consider public participation should never do so in isolation, and should connect to the growing network of people considering these problems; and 2) those same people should always ensure there is institutional capacity to support and be responsive to public feedback and action-taking. Without capacity, trust is squandered and communities disempowered.

There are no simple solutions to the problem of “doing engagement” outside of simply saying “this work is complicated.” It will take effort and deep consideration from a lot of smart people to get it right. 

 This is not to discount the real and symbolic value of shovels in such things as groundbreaking; on the contrary, this metaphor is a nod to the power of shovels.
Leader of City Accelerator's cohort on Local Government Engagement
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