The connected citizen

The internet made us more powerful as well as making us more transparent. We have access to information anytime, anyplace. We can find, motivate or join like minded people to create something or influence a third party. We also leave our trails on blogs, social networking platforms, newsgroups or buying online. Governments and citizens alike can benefit from this trend.

Hierarchical government structures are the dominant model for public service delivery and meeting public policies. Although desired outcomes are mostly realized, this set-up turns out to have various downsides. Results are a silo like, inward-looking culture, slow decision making, change awareness or knowledge diffusion. While the latter also led to an institutionalized disconnect from citizens it can cause system failures when information and decision making transcends organizational and jurisdictional boundaries. Hurricane Katrina, the Avian Flu, various non-prevented terrorist attacks are such representative cases.

In addition, public administration has become continuously more complex. Economic, social, political and technological developments in the past decades have lead to a growth of the administrative apparatus, its size, power and obligations. Market-based reforms have optimized agency operations and privatized public services through contracting-out (i.e. Public Private Partnerships) or completely conferring them to the private sector. Hence, public managers and policy makers have to work within a sphere of multiple stakeholders and understand interdependent relationships for service provision, regulation and policy making. Knowing whom to hold accountable and a general understanding of this complex system is important for legislators as well as for citizen.

What can governments do?

1. Access
2. Dialogue
3. Transparency
4. Internal change

Governments need to provide access to its services and information by the latest channels (i.e. counter, call center, web portal). Additionally, pervasive municipal WLANs are part of the idea. However, access also means share as much data as possible that was kept within the organization in the past. It is important however to structure and phrase internal information when giving citizens access as they might not be accustomed to the terms, language or procedures. In general, constituents can come up with creative ways of adding value to that data by analyzing or linking it with other information. Google Maps mash-ups like Chicago crime watch are a good example. At the same time it is important that citizens can share their information with their government and fellow constituents.

Dialogues help governments to understand the emotional, social, cultural and government contexts that shape citizens experiences. In an iterative dialogue of equals people can learn from each other. Governments are doing this through focus groups, neighbourhood councils and the like. A centralized call center and number like 311 make it easier for citizens to start that dialogue. In the future, governments could also provide platforms where citizens and governments can form a network on government related topics. Many times though governments cooperated symbolically (Etzioni 1958: 261) usually causing citizens realizing the lack of impact returning to passivity.

By sharing internal knowledge or allowing citizens to track their public services governments create a lot of transparency. In fact they governments loose a level of control while at the same time adding value by decreasing their burden through information requests, using citizen’s input to improve internal efficiency, eliminating gate-keepers or changing daily management. Let’s take the impact of New York’s 311 implementation for example. If any engineer, architect or builder wanted to meet with a DOB building inspector, which was necessary to begin a project, they would have to use the services of an expediter, a person whose job it was to interact with City employees and to facilitate the permitting and inspection process. Each of these expediters had a relationship with an employee in the DOB. As such they were gate-keepers. Typically, expediters would book numerous appointments each day in case they were hired; they would then cancel appointments at the last minute if they did not need them. A building inspector would therefore have his calendar full for several weeks in the future, meaning that anyone not using an expediter would be forced to wait weeks for an appointment. Transparency combined with better access changed this. Now citizens are randomly assigned to an inspector so that nobody can maintain special relationships. Expediters are no longer useful or necessary. The inspectors are working at full capacity and have to meet certain performance criteria (i.e. response time, closing time).

Finally, internal change is necessary to provide an environment and infrastructure to make the above happen. Sustainable, top-level political leadership is one of the key success factors.

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