Panel probes digital influence on Calif. govt

Oct. 28, 2011, 2:15 a.m.

Joe Mathews, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, moderated a panel discussion on the future of e-government in California Wednesday evening.

The event, called “Zocalo in Palo Alto: Can Technology Save California’s Governments?,” was part of Zocalo Public Square’s series of public affairs fora which the organization hosts nationwide. The Stanford-based Bill Lane Center for the American West and the New America Foundation also helped host the event.

Among the panelists was April Manatt, a consultant and lead author of a report on the status of local government work on electronic communications entitled “Hear us Now?: A California Survey of Digital Technology’s Role in Civic Engagement and Local Government.”

“Californians deserve — and should demand — a basic level of technology-driven service and engagement, just as they do with analog government services as emergency response and sanitation,” Manatt and her co-authors wrote in the report published this month.

The other panelists included Dakin Sloss ’12, executive director of California Common Sense; Greg Hermann, senior management analyst for the Southern Californian city of Carlsbad; Tim Bonnemann with San Jose-based Intellitics; and David B. Smith, executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship.

Sloss highlighted the increasing need for average people to be able to easily communicate with their elected leaders and suggested that there is currently no way for this to happen. His idea for more efficient governance entails the use of online technology to make budgetary and other information available to residents.

“My vision is that in 10 years government in real-time will be tracking everything it spends and everything that it’s bringing in, what outcomes that’s leading to and that that will be streaming in real-time onto servers that people outside of government and inside of government can slice and dice it however they want to see it,” he said.

Manatt, who served as a legislative assistant and held other positions in California’s government, said that most people in government do want to use technology to improve the way that local governments deliver information and provide services.

“Some people who’ve been in government for decades upon decades maybe don’t have access to some of the cutting-edge technology,” Manatt said.

Innovative ways that local governments are using technology to serve their people include the ability to schedule a jail visit by going to the Santa Clara County website or public kiosk. In another example, people can appear in court or request social services via a closed-circuit camera in Nevada County in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a place where roads in winter are often treacherous. Residents in Santa Clarita can go online to ask police to check on a home while a resident is away.

Audience members offered a range of opinions on the event. Lis Ebbesen, a member of a Danish city council, attended the discussion, along with a handful of other Danish politicians visiting Stanford. She commented that her country is more developed when it comes to e-government.

“If you look at my municipality, you can go on Facebook and comment on everything we’re doing in our municipality, or you could ask the mayor ‘Why is there a hole in the road?’ or ‘Why is the kindergarten closed?’ and he will answer you directly,” she said.

Geoff McGhee, creative director for media and communications for the Lane Center for the American West was also among the audience members. He outlined the research questions of a current project jointly ran by the New America Foundation and Lane Center for the American West. The research will primarily focus on finding “small innovations that save money and make a difference and make government more accountable” at a grass-roots level.

Thad Kousser, professor of political science at UC-San Diego and director of the California Constitutional Reform Project at the Lane Center for the American West, commented on the consequences of overlooking certain groups as governments ramp up their use of online communications technology.

“What you don’t want to do is create a thing where only the people with iPhones are participating in democracy,” he said. ”What you worry about is if you do this badly and only reach a small segment of people who speak one language and can afford the top technology, you’re not going to get what you want.”


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