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The Future of Government"Citizen Engagement

03/01/2010 4:45 PM Wong Auditorium
Jerry Mechling, Lecturer in Public Policy, Kennedy School; Nick Grossman, Director of Civic Works, The Open Planning Project; Laurel Ruma, Editor, O'Reilly Media; John Wonderlich, Policy Director, Sunlight Fndtn; Chris Csikszentmihalyi, Director, Center for Future Civic Media; Research Scientist

Description: As the U.S. moves toward universal broadband access, look for increased government openness, new opportunities for civic engagement, and some dangers along the way, say these panelists.

While Chris Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges the civic potential of broadband, he does not believe it will be a simple matter for geographic communities to aggregate information and make collective decisions. The amount of data is growing, he says, but "even sophisticated people's understanding is not growing." He cites online crime mapping, which posts reports from police departments, but avoids white collar crime. "Are you offering information or facile statistics that look like red lining...?" He applauds online citizen journalism, but worries that legal protections applied to traditional media are not being extended to digital journalists. "We could have national broadband and things could go south quickly in terms of what kind of speech we can have."

"Government needs to play catch up," says Laurel Ruma, when it comes to utilizing digital technology. It's time to move away from the "social web," where we "vote on silly things on Facebook," to a civic web. This means that "digital natives who work until 7 p.m. and don't have time to get to public meetings... go online" to watch and comment on streamed videos of government meetings. This kind of technology can make citizen actions more effective, and government programs more cost"efficient. She believes open government applications should be available not just on computers and smart phones, which many people cannot afford, but in less expensive, freely available forms, such as information displays at city bus stops.

"A rush of new information" flows from open government directives, says John Wonderlich, which "has a broad systemic effect through society." New public data empowers all of "us to be better researchers, lobbyists, and journalists." Information that used to come with a price tag is now free. But since we are at an early stage in open and participatory government "where best practices are unclear," Wonderlich foresees a balancing act between laws dictating government's responsibilities, and guidelines to encourage certain behaviors. He also believes that public perceptions about government transparency may be based on false or outdated assumptions; data posted online may be inaccurate, so we "need to grow better cultural expectations."

Nick Grossman finds it exciting that "government services are potentially a gatewayto civic engagement." It's not "just about politics and government, but about the city and how we use it," he says. He likes being able to deploy his smart phone for real"time information on public transportation, and to provide feedback to operators, so he's "now having a conversation with those people." One risk of a rapid expansion of open government via broadband, believes Grossman, is that government will "try to do too much," building tools and providing services itself that might better come from the private sector. The flip side, he adds, is moving "too incrementally" and running the risk of spending too much money "in something that doesn't work well enough."

About the Speaker(s): Jerry Mechling focuses on the impacts of information and digital technologies on individual, organizational, and societal issues. He consults on these and other topics with public and private organizations locally and internationally. Most recently he was author of Eight Imperatives for Leaders in a Networked World and is presently finishing Leadership for a Cross"Boundary World.

A Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and four"time winner of the Federal 100 Award, he was formerly a Fellow of the Institute of Politics, served as an aide to the Mayor and Assistant Administrator of the New York City Environmental Protection Administration, and served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget for the City of Boston. He received his B.A. in physical sciences from Harvard College and his M.P.A. and Ph.D. in economics and public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for Future Civic Media

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