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Solving the “Civic Infrastructure” Challenge through Innovation

tinker-toys3The Knight Foundation is responsible for bringing together 100 civic innovators from across the country to Miami this week to “tackle some of the thorniest questions on the future of cities.” Dubbed the “Civic Innovation in Action Studio,” Knight hopes to “develop a set of investment-worthy experiments that will be piloted in communities” to tackle challenges around harnessing talent, advancing opportunity and increasing engagement.

 

Most of these challenges surround the strength and quality of a community’s civic infrastructure. Civic Infrastructure has been defined as “the foundation for our democracy” and “the mechanism where key community stakeholders can address systemic problems and work towards solutions.” It’s also been defined as the system of “social connections, decision-making processes, difficult conversations and informal networks that influence how the people in a community function.”

 

Suffice it to say there is enough substance within these definitions to establish a sense of organization and purpose for what constitutes a civic infrastructure.  Other descriptions may touch on the soul, vibe or rhythm of the social and economic connectivity within a community. What we are looking at is whether its presence is strong or weak and whether it is deeply rooted in a community or a mere veneer that exists only in terminology.

 

The Knight Foundation and its “civic innovator participants” will wrestle not only with answers for solutions but also with questions surrounding the challenges.

 

Civics” and “citizenship” are common terms that will be tossed about during this three day event. These terms have enjoyed a long history and tradition in our nation and communities. However, our nation and its cities have transformed and it’s time we reconsider what those terms mean in today’s society and economy.

 

We also have to reexamine society’s role and its different components in these areas.  What is the role of government and the public sector?  How has public policy impacted communities? What is the role of citizens (now more appropriately identified as “residents”)? How has diversification within society and income levels impacted communities? What is the role of the private sector? Has private resources or lack thereof had an impact on communities?

 

What about new challenges from sweeping changes in communication and information sharing technologies? And just as equally, how can these changes help address and devise solutions?

 

I don’t believe anyone expects a silver bullet to come from these short proceedings this week in Miami. Societal changes are incremental no matter how fast and expansive information travels and personal connectivity can occur today. I’d settle for a couple of “A-ha” moments that give direction to further exploration, which, I suspect Knight is seeking as it continues its admirable investment to improve America’s civic infrastructure.

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Governments make residents give up privacy when using third party online comment solutions

There is a problem when someone wants to leave a public comment on their government’s web site and they are required to agree to terms and conditions of a private company that allows them to gain access to their “friends,” posts and other online activities.

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Open Data program managers toolkit: excellent peripheral vision

lockedI enjoyed reading Mark Headd’s blog post, “Don’t Hang Any Pictures,” as he advises those in local governments who are embarking on or managing an open data program. He gives a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to help make your project and your tenure run more smoothly and successfully. As the title suggests, don’t get too comfortable in your role or in your position. Uncertainty and resistance should be expected and incorporated into everything you do.  I’ll add another one: Incrementalism (think tortoise in the “Tortoise and the Hare.)”

Having spent 13 years in local government with a professional background in public administration, I’ve grown to appreciate that word. It is a way of life in government.  You can push or pull as much and as hard as you like, but there will be limits in all directions no matter how determined or how gifted you are.  Why do you think they call government an “institution?”  It’s the nature of the beast, and thanks to our Founding Fathers, it’s supposed to be that way.

Moving in increments frustrates public administrators, legislators and citizens. Yet, incremental change can also be attributed to 230+ years of a successful democracy (though many will debate the definition of “success” –and so they should).

Some folks adapt and incorporate incrementalism into a successful public sector career.  Some folks resist, even revolt, and become candidates for early exit from government. Others still, adopt the bureaucratic characteristic of incrementalism to piece together complacent, yet lack-luster careers in government characterized by lowered expectations and initiative, and a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality.

For elected officials, incrementalism makes for an incredible challenge to take on major initiatives considering they have only four years to accomplish them. I’ve seen community revitalization projects span a 12-16 year period of public policy and participation to complete them. That’s three to four administration terms! And that’s making sure an incumbent’s successor continues the initiative and dedicates needed resources.

And incorporating communication and information technology into a government project, or making it the centerpiece of the effort, such as opening data to the public, has to be the greatest challenge –capping the speed and flexibility of electronic information and communication and applying rigid, even restrictive guidelines to its access and content. It’s easy to understand why CIOs, CDOs and (yes there are still some) MIS professionals tasked with open data initiatives either move on when they see the road they have to travel or happen to be replaced because they aren’t moving fast enough (but at who’s pace…an elected official’s?).

Just ask Doug Robinson, director of NASCIO about the ever-changing makeup of his membership. No other government organization experiences the turnover of its members as much as information officers in senior leadership positions.

There is much to be said for Mark’s comment: “Don’t get comfortable. Recognize that your time in public service is temporary.”  While that may be true in some cases, government IT professionals shouldn’t assume that short tenures is inevitable.  Government IT professionals can achieve much success in one administration only to be snatched up by another and put to work making the same kind of magic happen to that government’s open data challenge.

 

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Forget kissing babies. “TT” (Talking Transparency) is what’s popular among political candidates

bush&babyIt used to be the way a candidate showed he was likeable and cared about his fellow citizens. But thanks to actor Will Ferrell’s movie character, Congressman Cam Brady, candidates kissing babies became more about the “kisser” of the baby.

So what else can we expect candidates to include among their campaign strategy and platform in 2014? Bet your money on “TT”: Open Government, Open Data, FOI (freedom of information), Access and Accountability.  All of these terms fall under the Transparency umbrella. From mayoral candidates discussing transparency as part of a public forum, to Attorney General candidates proposing new, open government units within their agencies, TT sends the signal, “I get it” and more importantly, “I’m accountable.”

Keep in mind, however, TT doesn’t actually mean they are or will be forthcoming and accountable to the public. In a campaign, anything said should be considered part of their pitch, or a slogan.  Enough examples exists that you can run but you can’t hide when it comes to public disclosure. There are enough watchdogs out there from journalists, to attorneys, to nonprofits keeping their eye on the institution of government even if government officials are neglectful.

And the more we learn about “open data,” the more we find that the primary steward of this public information is not necessarily an open government.

But the corner has been turned thanks to public interest and particularly to technology. Governments are realizing that being open about their affairs and their information not only constitutes good government, but it also has political benefits. We shouldn’t be surprised to see the idea and more “TT” showing up front and center in the campaigns of those who strive for public office or for those who want to maintain their positions there.

 

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150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address good launch for class on FOI

My class at Florida Gulf Coast University kicked off a discussion on Open Government and Freedom of Information today. It was a timely discussion as it coincided with the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Before we began class, I asked the students what they knew about Gettysburg, the battle and the president’s brief speech. Not a lot of feedback from the students, which is keeping in line for the other classes this semester, however, a few key points I wanted to impress upon them included the magnitude of the battle and the impact of the speech on our democracy 150 years from the day it was delivered.

Gettysburg AddressFirst of all the battle was incredible. Over 50,000 men died from the North and South. That is about the same casualty count of all the U.S. service men and women who died in the Vietnam War/conflict.

Lincoln was asked late to speak at the event attended by 15,000 people to consecrate a cemetery to honor the Union dead at Gettysburg.

His 271 word speech that took less than three minutes to deliver focused on two main points. His earlier ideas he espoused that this was a nation of equals –all men are created equal. The second point was that it was not only important to save the nation as a union, but to make it a union worth saving. He ended his speech with the line: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

What a great segue into a discussion on Open Government and Freedom of Information,

 

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The compelling need to encourage, educate & train Millennials for civic engagement

FL_Civic_H_Index“Millennials” represent 95 million Americans born between 1982 and 2003. In a recent article in the The Atlantic, author Ron Fournier writes about the lack of faith this generation has in public service or elected office. Fournier finds that:

  • —Millennials, in general, are fiercely committed to community service.
  • —They don’t see politics or government as a way to improve their communities, their country, or the world.
  • —The best and brightest Millennials are rejecting public service as a career path. Just as Baby Boomers retire from government and politics, Washington faces a rising-generation “brain drain” (and a breed of politicians who represent polarized points of view rushing in to fill the void).
  • —The only way Millennials might engage Washington is if they first radically change it.

Another factor that has to be taken into consideration about Millennials is they have grown up in a period of unprecedented technological change and entered adulthood during the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and at a time when their nation was fighting two wars simultaneously. (NCOC)

There is a profound quote in the article from one observer who stated “Millennials will produce radical reconstruction of civil institutions & government.”  That scenario is not only revolutionary (in a positive sense), but also accurate with today’s political environment. Today we have:

  • A federal government shutdown
  • Ongoing party gridlock that slows (and halts) government processes to the detriment of the citizenry;
  • The lack of interest to collaborate, let alone compromise; and
  • A general disrespect for opposing viewpoints

This is all contrary to the teachings of civics. Yet, that education is almost nonexistent today –-absent as an ongoing theme throughout primary and secondary education. Young people are being exposed and they are being raised by parents who had little or no exposure themselves to civic education who cannot pass along wisdom or examples about the importance of civic education and civic engagement.  I see it and hear it in my state and local government class @FGCU.

In light of the current situation, two valid questions about civics education and practices confront our society. The first question is whether finding solutions to our political and governing crises can benefit from more people, especially younger people, increasing their knowledge of civics principles and putting that knowledge into practice.  The second question addresses the common question from a potential participant: “WIIFM,” or, what’s in it for me?

Civics Education Does civics have value to society beyond its governing institutions and civil behavior?   Research now being reported is showing a positive correlation between individual income/affluence of civic engagement as well as a strong relationship between civic health and a thriving economy.

In Florida, there are plenty of warning signs that those benefits are not being realized, even understood across the state. Florida (as are other states) is missing a golden opportunity to institute and instill civics education and practices particularly among their Millennial generation. Florida’s case is a bit more challenging, however, when you view the research.

In the Florida Civic Health Index 2011 – The Next Generation, produced by the National Conference on Citizenship took a close look at Florida’s Millennials and found:

  • —Florida Millennials have the “depressing distinction” of being the most disengaged group in one of the most civically disengaged states in the nation.
  • —Civic engagement levels of Millennials in Florida are between 7 and 20 percentage points below that of Millennials in the most engaged states in the nation.

Factors that may provide insight and explanation into poorer state-wide showings for disengagement include the number of residents who relocated to Florida from another state/community who have not established their roots here or they are not as deep nor their civic commitment as strong; a larger immigrant population over other states may display similar traits of other relocated residents but also include adult family members/parents who have never been exposed to civics education and do not understand or embrace the concept, possess the knowledge or experience or examples they can pass down to younger members of their families including their children.

FL_MillennialI won’t dive too deep into the report findings but summarize their research criteria. Four separate areas of civic engagement were studied and compared to Florida Millennials:

  1. Electoral Engagement – The percentage of eligible U.S. citizens over 18 years old who are registered to vote, and percentage turnout among eligible voters.
  • Finding: Less than half of the Millennial generation in Florida was registered to vote in 2010, and of those who were registered, a little over one-in-five actually voted,
  1. Non-electoral political engagement – The percentage who contacted a public official, and percentage that bought or boycotted a product or service based on the social values of a company.
  • Finding: This behavior is almost non-existent, e.g., only 3% contacted or visited a public official. The result of this low showing is public officials are simply not likely to hear about the concerns and passions of younger Floridians.
  1. Group Engagement – Percentage who belong to any group, i.e., religious, school, neighborhood or sports/recreation.
  • Finding: Florida’s Millennials have one of the lowest rates (6%, ranked 48th in the nation) of participating in any type of civic, community, school, sports or religious group.
  1. Community engagement – The percentage who reported undertaking any volunteer activity, percentage attending a public meeting, percentage exchanging favors with neighbors, and percentage working with neighbors to fix a problem in the community.
  • Finding: Millennials in Florida are ranked among the bottom ten states for community engagement, such as volunteering, attending public meetings and working with neighbors in the community.

graduate_with_familyThe research also factored in four (4) characteristics they identify that promote or impact a person’s civic engagement:

  1. 1. Education - Finding: There is clearly a strong correlation between educational attainment and civic participation. Among the attributes measured, education has the most effect on voter registration and turnout.
  1. Family Income - Finding: Fairly constant across all modes of civic engagement and across generations: the less affluent are less engaged and tend to be the most marginalized in terms of their levels of engagement.
  1. Race/Ethnicity  - Finding: While race and ethnicity have been found to be a leading cause of variations in the level of civic engagement nationally, with minorities exhibiting lower levels of civic engagement, those findings disappear among Florida’s Millennials., where civic engagement among minorities here eclipse that of white people.
  1. Gender - Finding: Gender differences in patterns of civic engagement have largely disappeared (attributed to women gains in income, job advancement, education). Indeed, to the extent that they exist at all among Millennials, it is women who engage at higher rates, although the differences are quite small. The most noticeable gender gaps were for volunteering (7%), registration (5%), and group participation (4%) and do favors for neighbors (5%)

Social Connectedness

Finally, the researchers considered the extent to which social networks and personal connections drive civic engagement and civic health. They defined Social Connectedness as private things people do in relation to one another. These are informal interactions that tighten the bonds in a community. So when levels of social connectedness are high, so is civic health, and conversely, having relatively weak social connectedness can fray the civic health in a community. Interestingly, the three indicators they identify:

  1. Frequency of eating dinner with other household members
  2. Frequency of communicating with friends and family via the Internet
  3. Frequency of talking to neighbors

Portrait of happy young businesswomanSo, does civic engagement translate into tangible benefits for the individual and for their community/state? As stated earlier, there is research showing a positive correlation between income/affluence and of civic engagement for individuals and a strong relationship between a community’s civic health and a thriving local economy.  For the Individual:

  • —Civic engagement can develop skills, confidence and habits that make individuals employable— and signal desirable qualities to potential employers.
  • —Participation in civil society is strongly correlated with trust in other people. High levels of trust and social capital, in turn, may facilitate economic transactions and promote innovation in business.
  • —Civic engagement can encourage people to feel attached to their communities, and create an infrastructure that encourages people to invest, spend and hire.

While the data is still a little sketchy, early evidence does point to a positive correlation that’s worthy of additional research and discussion on a community-wide level.

 

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Government crowdsourcing should include a policy for its internal use

crowdsourceFormer Manor, TX CIO Dustin Haisler suggests four steps for (local) government to follow to better utilize crowdsourcing techniques for better civic engagement. He states while agencies have gradually opened these outreach processes; they have not yet met their full potential.

Among his four basic steps is to test out a crowdsourcingplatform internally, within the agency, before taking it to an external audience, i.e., the residents. His four basic steps:

  1.  Identify a Starting Point – Don’t tackle everything at once. Start small, and see if current projects that utilize crowdsourcing are working.
  2.  Start Inside Your Agency – Haisler said agencies should use their own employees first to test out a crowdsourcing platform.
  3.  Gradually Expand – After testing among internal employees, expand to other departments and then from there go outside your agency and later to the public.
  4.  Measure, Adapt and Share

The idea to practice on oneself first is an important one. In fact it should be broadened into an actual internal policy for all governments: practice what you (want) to preach. Public employees are also a part of the constituency they represent in their professional work and they can easily switch hats depending on the circumstances. They can also provide an excellent, perhaps even a balanced view point about how to implement and manage new communication and information sharing technologies to advance government programs, services and practices.

 I posted in 2009, an idea to create internal social networks in state governments to help find ways to cut costs when governments were experiencing extreme revenue shortfalls. The idea is to level the playing field of the old “suggestion box” concept by including as many line employees in a collaboration around ideas before they make their way up the decision tree to management.

Encouraging and facilitating more internal collaboration in agencies and across agencies around government standards, practices and processes can only help improve governing and make government more approachable and responsive to citizens, and eventually, help close the chasm that exists between public agencies and the public they serve.

 

 

 

 

 

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Running government like a business; brands & monopolies.

monopoly_moneyThe discussion or argument that government would be more efficient if it were run like a business has been around for decades. It is a particularly hot topic in times of fiscal austerity, which we certainly seem to be living.

The biggest flaw to this argument is that government cannot be run like a business because it was never structured to be one or act like one. Instead of arguing the pros and cons of running government like a business,  the discussion we should be having on this topic is about what structures, processes and practices can be instilled to run a successful organization or enterprise whether its private or public,  business or a government agency. We all know these attributes. They address efficiency, communication, best practices, talent, understanding of goals, objectives and responsibilities, metrics and so on.

But just for discussion purposes, what if government were a business?  Of course, the quick reply to that is if it were, it would quickly be out of business.  But how would you run it better?  And why would those executives in charge be worried about doing so? Because of customer satisfaction? Increase revenues? Beat the competition? Be sustainable? Consider being a monopoly with a guaranteed customer base and a guaranteed revenue stream. Why would you sweat over the quality of programs and service delivery?

monopoly_mayorAnd if this would be the scenario government faced as a business then what would be its brand, or does it even have one? And if it does, what is the value of that brand in the marketplace?  How would you measure it department by department? What about marketing, advertising and public relations? That’s not really important being the only game in town. Still government promotes a public relations image managed by internal or external professionals.

So if you were a monopoly, had no brand image to worry about, knew that revenue would be derived regardless of the quality of your programs and services, how would that be reflected in quality of your workforce or leadership? Would such a structure within an organization lead to mediocrity, even indifference toward your job and toward your customers?

If you were a monopoly, how important is it to roll out new programs and services? Forgot about how would you evaluate them. Why would you evaluate them?

Poor_Cust_SerSo, no, government is not a business and was not set up to run like one. But government performance has to be more than ensuring a positive relationship with constituents in order for elected officials to be reelected. And it is. There are plenty of examples where government strives to be more efficient and effective at all levels. And, whether or not it competes like businesses compete for market share, government performance is still competitive. Positive peer review is as much a motivator as is positive citizen feedback.

We know being reelected isn’t necessarily an affirmation for performance. Unique to government, there still seems to be some responsibility, even sympathy assumed by the shareholders, or in this case, citizens, for how (their) government performs unlike that shown to their private brands. (And if true, government executives have to appreciate they are given a much wider margin of error than their private sector counterparts.)

 

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How far away is Regional Government?

collaborationSocial Networks connect people to form new communities of interest. These communities are both virtual and real as they exist online and face-to-face. The same potential exists for local governments to do the same to connect with their geographic counterparts to form regional governments and/or to govern regionally.

Legal and political challenges would have to be addressed, but the possible cost savings to reduce replication of programs and services to meet socio-economic needs that extend across local government jurisdictions make this argument worth having. Sharing resources and more inclusive collaboration can result in additional benefits to citizens.

Inter-governmental agreements provide a glimpse into what is possible on a broader scale. For example, many communities have banded together to fund and administer regional economic development agencies to attract new businesses realizing their citizens work in jurisdictions beyond the one in which they reside.  Besides, local government boundaries formed when transportation, communication and protection infrastructures were in their infancy or even nonexistent have advanced light years from their historical beginnings.

 

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