Collaboration top priority for government communication

OneBusAway

Using the “One Bus Away” app – a frequent site at bus stops in Seattle!

Collaboration, customer service and mobile are the three top trends in government communication to look out for in 2013, according to a survey of US state, county and city governments published on 19 March 2013 by GovDelivery.  The survey stresses the need to streamline collaboration between government agencies in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs, as well as the growing demand for digital engagement opportunities from citizens:

“An increasing number of citizens want to collaborate with their local government officials on social media or get assistance with services online or via mobile technology using their own devices.”  (Top 2013 Industry Trends for State and Local Government)

The same thinking seems to be inspiring the ongoing work on the USA’s Digital Government Strategy at the federal level.  At a webinar on Government 2.0 organized this week by GovLoop, Lena Trudeau from the General Services Administration (GSA) commented:

“The shift right now for government is from being bureaucratic and authoritative to being open and sharing and collaborative.”

But what does this mean in practice?  I have been looking into some examples of digital collaboration here in Washington State, through contacts with people working in and around state and local government.

Supporting local democracy

Washington made headlines last year by becoming the first US State to allow voters to register via a Facebook app.  The Facebook application embeds the official MyVote online registration system (using an iframe).  Microsoft provided assistance with the technical implementation.  Apparently, the impact so far of the Facebook experiment on voter registrations has been positive (albeit relatively modest), and the app has also helps to provide practical information to existing voters about forthcoming ballot measures and candidates.

As I have mentioned in previous posts on this blog, Washington is one of the US States that makes active use of citizens’ initiatives and referenda as part of the legislative process.  An interesting complement to the electoral system is a citizen-driven initiative called the Living Voters Guide.  The Guide is a platform that allows citizens to debate the pros and cons of specific measures (marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage …).  Faculty members and students from the University of Washington were involved in setting up the Living Voters Guide.  Other partners include the Seattle City Club (a dynamic local civic group) and the Seattle Public Library, which has taken on a fact-checking role in the project.

Balancing the budget

Lawmakers in Washington face a challenge balancing revenues and spending in today’s tight financial climate, particularly given the obligations imposed by federal requirements, state laws and constitutional mandates.  Over the last couple of years, there have been some interesting experiments to give local people a say in defining the funding priorities.  In addition to town hall meetings, the Office of Financial Management set up a discussion platform called Transforming Washington’s Budget using Ideascale during the 2011 budget discussions.  The platform was designed to allow users to submit ideas under a series of defined headings.  Other members of the community then voted and the most popular ideas floated to the top of the ranking.  Some of the proposals were apparently taken on board by legislators during the budget debate.

The Seattle Times has provided a further opportunity to inform citizens about the constraints and the tough choices to be made this year.  On its website, the Times recently published an interactive graphic that invites people to answer the question “How would you balance the budget and fund education?” together with a space for readers to comment and discuss.

Keeping Washingtonians moving

Washington State’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has won several awards for its innovative use of social media and online tools.

Given Washington State’s notoriously variable weather and frequently congested roads, there is a heavy demand for up-to-the minute information about public transport, mountain pass driving conditions, traffic alerts, road closures and practical advice (eg how to install tyre chains).  WSDOT uses a wide range of channels to provide real-time information, including email (an impressive 400,000+ subscribers), Twitter (30,000+ followers), a Youtube channel, a Flickr account and a blog.  WSDOT actively encourages Washington residents to provide feedback, including input on strategic issues like an ongoing debate regarding road tolls.

A frequent sight at bus stops across Seattle is people checking their smartphones to see how many minutes they will have to wait, using a very cool app called OneBusAway.  The app takes data made available in a re-usable format by the transit agencies in the City of Seattle and neighbouring counties.  Again, faculty and students at the University of Washington were involved in the design and development of the service.  Apparently, one of the students involved has since gone on to be recruited to work at Google.  A great example of both collaboration and job creation!

Beyond Washington State

Looking across the USA, there is further evidence of the way digital tools are being used to improve citizen engagement and collaboration at the state, local and city level.

Earlier this month, California’s Lieutenant-Governor (and the former Mayor of San Francisco) Gavin Newsom published a book titled Citizenville, which makes the case for open government:

“In a world where people can do anything at the touch of a button—shop, communicate, do research, publish a blog, transfer money—government cannot keep functioning in a twentieth-century mind-set.”

As part of its continuing efforts to be recognized as the “digital capital of the world”, New York has recently launched a new open data portal, which provides a one-stop-shop for people looking for local, state and federal data.

And Cory Booker (prolific tweeter and mayor of Newark, New Jersey) spoke about government and social media, including the way that he personally uses Twitter to engage with his constituents, at the recent SXSW conference in Austin.

I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to learn more about these and other examples before I return to Brussels in a few months’ time!

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