Editor’s note: Hollie Russon Gilman is democracy fellow at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation where she studies the impact of technology on government transparency, civic engagement, and democratic innovations.
We live in a society of instant gratification: Just about anything can be delivered; any job “task-rabbited”; and many things can even be instantly live-streamed. How does this square with the typically slower pace of government? Government cannot be as nimble as the commercial sectors by design, and this can often be for good reason.
Governments need to have equitable contracting procedures and serve as stalwarts against partisan proclivities. They can also work to protect the public and its commons over the bottom line. How to marry the seeming gulf between instant expectations and government?
Increasingly, governments are incorporating technology to bridge this seeming divide.
The first wave of technology and government was modernization — everything from new hardware and safer architecture to e-governance. The future of technology and government will be determined by how well government can incorporate tools to make government more collaborative, participatory and responsive.
What are some of the basic functions of government? The first is a technical function – providing proficient and equitable service delivery. Here digital tools can offer more transparent and accountable processes. For example, electronic payments can help reduce corruption and “skimming from the top.” In the Better Than Cash Alliance, a public-private partnership including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Citi, Ford, MasterCard, the Omidyar Network, Visa, and the U.S. government. This can help foster improved economic security and build savings — especially for previously unbanked people.
Digital tools can also foster greater communication between government and citizens. At the height of the SARS pandemic, the government of Hong Kong sent SMS messages to 6 million mobile phones in an attempt to allay fears surrounding supposed government action.
After providing information and services, digital tools can help to hold government accountable. D.C. has been using Grade.dc.gov, which enables residents to submit comments about D.C. agencies and view how other residents graded those agencies. This is part of a larger effort to enable government to listen to what citizens have to say. One aspect is sentiment analysis of people discussing the D.C. government on social media by NewBrand Analytics, which is translated into a public grade.
Government has several functions – including creating the space for civic engagement and democratic deepening. A burgeoning field of “civic tech” is helping to connect citizens to their government. One particularly successful example is Popvox, a platform that uses real-time legislative data coupled with individual input. This information is directly channeled to government officials who take this citizen feedback seriously. Government need not do it alone, but rather can enlist valuable partners across sectors.
While these examples have highlighted digital tools, technology is not monolithic and hardly limited to digital tools. Boston’s City Hall to Go used a refurbished truck to deliver services directly to residents. This includes everything from voter registration to birth certificates. The program helps build trust – showing that government can work for the people.
The Neighborhood Postcard Program, started in San Francisco, as a way for people to share positive stories about their neighborhood. The postcards are mailed to people in a different neighborhood within the same city with a goal to foster community storytelling and understanding.
All of these examples suggest a quiet revolution is underway to use technology toward reimagining government’s role and relationship to citizens. This will not happen overnight. It requires governments being more open to iterative learning and a willingness to “fail forward.” In turn, the public must become more lenient with experimentation as government tries to act boldly.