Ex-NYC Deputy Mayor: Hyperlocals Should Help Citizens ‘March on City Hall’

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Journalism and community are rapidly converging in the hyperlocal space. But the big missing piece is meaningful participation by local government. Mayors, city and town managers and other local public officials may have Twitter accounts or Facebook pages, but too often they’re used for carefully managed image messages–not for joining citizens in serious problem solving. Stephen Goldsmith, former deputy mayor of New York City and two-time mayor of Indianapolis, thinks hyperlocals are the perfect place for these important encounters. Now a professor of the practice of government and director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Goldsmith explains how hyperlocals can help make this happen.

You’ve talked and written about the opportunities that social media create for positive connections between citizens and the government.  On the local level, how can this play out and, in particular, what role can and should hyperlocal news sites have?

We need novel solutions for today’s tough public problems. Citizens should be catalysts for social change. One way this plays out is when citizens use social media tools to mobilize others in a way that grabs the attention of government and service elites. I like to think of this as citizens virtually marching on city hall. Creative individuals like many of your readers are constructing the future models of citizen participation. These tools not only change how advocacy efforts occur but also fundamentally democratize news gathering and reporting, following a trend of devolving control over information from authoritative experts to citizens.

Can you point to examples where social media is helping to create the connections you advocate? 

In New York City we created opportunities for citizens to engage with government—not just advocacy but active involvement in solving localized public problems. The city invited New Yorkers to join a social network that connects them to other motivated individuals in their neighborhoods and across the city. On the site, Change by Us NYC, users can post ideas, join or create project teams, and easily access the resources of city agencies and community-based organizations.

All of these and other examples follow the continual devolution of information sharing, and creating, from so-called experts to citizens. The professionalization of local and state government agencies has created technically sound solutions that too often lack the interactivity and participation required in a complex environment. Social networking tools can help solve that ubiquitous challenge.

What needs to happen to create more such “active” connections?

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation runs the Community Information Challenge that provides $4 million a year in grants to encourage community foundations to support experimentation in hyperlocal news. They describe the purpose of the Challenge as seeking “creative uses of media and technology to help keep communities informed and their citizens engaged.”

Yet for there to be truly hyperlocal news, the transparency efforts of government must be better designed: much more information, easier to use in real time and fully geo-coded. Community-based reporters or bloggers can comb government data, make sense of them, and broadcast the information to force change. This step requires government officials to make available performance and financial data in a more usable fashion. In New York we took 311 call data into an interactive service map that allowed citizens and neighborhood leaders alike to not only track city responsiveness but see the types of complaints by time and place in order to report on them and provide suggestions.

Many cities and other communities and their elected officials use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but public agencies and officials appear averse to getting involved in problem solving with the citizenry.  The emphasis often seems on messaging, where the public official controls the agenda.  Why is that?

Social media still is relatively new and many public officials are relatively new to the concept. Using these tools for messaging purposes represents an understandable advance where an official wants to develop support for an important initiative. The tools that facilitate direct problem solving are less refined. A messy and often cacophonous discussion has to become a meaningful collaboration. However, just around the corner, in years if not months, there will be major breakthroughs when officials understand how much more useful and representative social media participation is than smaller, louder meetings where a few individuals dominate the agenda and how sophisticated mining technologies can convert those discussions into digestible messages.

Public officials sometimes say they don’t have the time to engage in extended forum discussions.  Do they have a point?

Of course—endless meetings can drag any effort down or kill it. But the problem suggests why new forms of interaction are necessary. Broad-based suggestions in a digital and visible format both allow many more people to participate and do it in a way that can be captured much more efficiently. In addition these tools allow for participants to build on each other’s suggestions in a network and asynchronous way; not just as a bilateral exchange.

Let’s look at one example where social media might create the kind of connections you talk about.  A local school system has a poor record of minority achievementeven as its minorities are becoming the majority enrollment.  Each of the major players—school administration, school board, teachers, and parents—sees the problem from a different perspective.  Why can’t they all agree to debate the issue long-term online to sort through their sometimes conflicting data and different points of emphasis to try and reach a consensus that will lead to a real reform program aimed at increasing minority achievement?  Can social media help make this happen?

Social media helps correct this problem in many ways. If done right it can produce a much larger group of participants, especially among those who do not wish to “perform” in front of others. The comments of one person can trigger ideas from another. Data can be easily utilized to advance the discussions. Candor and an open exchange are easier for most when it is less confrontational. And when the discussion is moderated the moderator can help the participants build on each other’s comments in a respectful fashion and provide suggestions.

[Goldsmith is the author of The Power of Social Innovation and wrote about Grassroots-Powered Innovation for Governing magazine’s Better, Faster, Cheaper blog.]

Tom Grubisich authors The  New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight.  He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is  developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus  categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are  updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local  experts and users of the site.