Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hackable Government

by David Fleming RSS / cpsrenewaltwitter / northeenddavid

David is an economist, business association leader, cyclist and urbanist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He blogs infrequently at http://dfleming.ca and tweets @northenddavid.

A little while ago, I wrote an article for Halifax's alt weekly The Coast about demographic trends in Nova Scotia and the need for a bold youth agenda in Nova Scotia. The article caught fire - after thousands of shares, tweets, and emails, it was clear it struck a nerve among my peers.

In the article, I listed a number of common themes I hear from young professionals that would make Halifax a place to flock to. Kent picked up on one - hackable and transparent governments - and asked me to elaborate on what I think its relationship to attracting people is, and to public service renewal.

There are a lot of signs, both above and below our border that people are disengaging from their political processes. The chasm between government and citizens has arguably never been bigger. In the past 50 years, we’ve gone from local government directories with people’s names on them to national or regional offices with 1-800 numbers. Government offices were once a place you could go to ask a question - now, many of them are fortresses of security, often located in inaccessible places like business parks. When you ask many public servants what they do, it’s a sea of inside baseball terms and acronyms - with no clear answer on what relevance that has to the asker.

I believe at our core most of us are hackers. Whether we’re programming sentry guns to spray squirrels in our backyards , building DIY greenhouses, or simply collecting other people’s good ideas - most of us aren’t content with staying at our current level of interactivity with the world around us. I believe, if we’re truly looking at public service renewal and ways to engage our citizens in the places they live, we need to give people the chance to be a part of the hacking of the public service.

On a tangible level, something as simple as freely releasing GPS data for busses has a momentous effect on the public interaction with service. Instead of waiting for busses on the hope that the planned schedule matches reality (which generally leads to a lot of frustration and distrust) - people can build tools so that people can avoid missing an early bus or standing out in the rain for one that’s late. They can build tools that provide specialized help to 1, 10, or 100 people with a common problem (such as the desire to intersect public transit and art venues to plan an event.) The only limit is the public’s desire to create an outcome. And, even better - with a more complete set of data, they can test, analyze and suggest ways to realistically improve the efficiency of that service from the perspective of a user.

The benefit of creating hackable governments is two-fold - one, people feel more agency and control over their public services - and two, governments get better information from its citizens about what they need. On both sides of the spectrum, it creates public engagement and liveability. Those are pretty great areas to focus on when looking at public service renewal - how can we use the amazing tools and power of the collective to get people back into solving public problems and creating good outcomes for each other? Instead of looking at public service renewal as an inner working of the government - how do we get it out into the public for design input?

In a future article (either here or on my personal blog), I’ll continue the conversation about how simple changes to things like information design and performance metrics can create huge changes in this area.

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