Using technology in local government

It is a popular American notion to believe that improvements in technology will somehow save us from ourselves. We smoke believing we will someday cure cancer. We eat too much and don't exercise knowing there is a pill to lower blood pressure and medical miracles awaiting to fix encrusted arteries. We believe a magical energy fix will someday replace oil as the basis of our economy. Food production capacity will forever keep up with population growth. This faith works well to drive human progress, until it doesn't. 

Government is always more than a few steps behind in employing technology to improve our lives. Tim O'Reilly, an advocate for what he calls "Government as a Platform", has a vision for changing that. He was quoted brilliantly in a blog post by Rob Goodspeed:

Web 2.0 was not a new version of the World Wide Web; it was a renaissance after the dark ages of the dotcom bust, a rediscovery of the power hidden in the original design of the World Wide Web. Similarly, Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.

And in that reimagining, this is the idea that becomes clear: government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build the institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest.

Government 2.0, then, is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0—to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.

Government is a mechanism for collective action. The simplicity of that insight is what makes it so powerful.

At the beginning of September we posted A Simple Idea on Assessments, the concept that we would have much better land use decisions if we ended the current practice of socializing the costs of maintaining our development pattern. We suggested using the assessment process to ensure that the long-term cost of maintenance was actually the responsibility of the property that created the expense. Our brilliant readers pointed out some of the practical and constitutional issues associated with using the assessment approach.

On Monday we posted Fund the Police?, a discussion on the costs associated with modern policing and how many of those costs are exaggerated by the living pattern we have adopted. It certainly costs more to outfit a police department to keep the peace along dozens of miles of road than it costs to outfit a cadre of peace officers to walk the local beat. The costs are becoming limiting enough where many local units of government are cutting police service, even though public safety has historically been one of the budget items with the broadest public support.

Inspired by Tim O'Reilly, here are two concepts we have for employing Government as a Platform at the local level:

  • For road maintenance and improvement projects, let's establish a 401(k) plan for each street. As a simple example, take a dead-end street with ten homes on it where there are no complexities over who benefits from the street. The long-term cost of maintenance could be calculated and then property owners would pay a proportionate share into a fund that would accumulate over time to cover the ultimate expense. The amount of the contribution could be regularly adjusted based on market conditions and on the preferences of the property owners involved. They could collectively choose to perform more maintenance, exchanging slightly higher costs today for greater reductions in long-term costs. They could choose to downsize their road, maybe accepting a lower design speed or a different surfacing option in exchange for a lower cost. All of this could be managed on a platform where each property owner could monitor their fund and communicate with their neighbors on how best to take collective action.
  • For police protection, what if we augmented our public safety approach with an enhanced neighborhood watch program? A Facebook-like platform could be used to connect neighbors together for common security. Your calendar could be connected to the platform so that neighbors who spotted suspicious activity at your place could check and see if you are scheduled to be out. Instead of calling the police or going to  investigate, they could text you through the platform to see if you were actually expecting the plumber to show up that day. The local police could even be part of this platform (and maybe even the plumber) so that decisions on response could be made collectively, and intelligently, in real time. A system like this could provide residents with a dramatically increased sense of security at a very nominal cost. Such a system would be a great deterrent to many crimes.

These simple ideas would be dramatic if applied. They point out how easy it would be to use technology to improve our ability to work together. This type of cooperative action at the local level - a hallmark of early America - is badly needed. From the Goodspeed blog post:

For too long government has been nothing more than a vending machine, O’Reilly argues, dispensing services to citizens in exchange for taxes. When we didn’t like what it produced, we resorted to shaking the machine — political protest. What we should be doing, O’Reilly argues, is creating a government which enables collective action, and captures the energy and innovation of the marketplace.

Our changing economy demands that our government budget crisis be more than a simple math problem; additional taxes or less spending. True reform means changing the way things are done. While we at Strong Towns do not believe that technology can solve all problems, it is obvious that we can use it to bring about major innovations in how we take "collective action".

Doing so is a key part of building a Strong Town.


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