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By • Nigel Jacob & Chris Osgood

This post originally appeared on Living Cities.

There’s been tremendous energy behind the movement to change the way that local governments use technology to better connect with residents. Civic hackers, Code for America Fellows, concerned residents, and offices such as ours, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, are working together to create a more collaborative environment in which these various players can develop new kinds of solutions to urban challenges. In many cities, you can now find out via text message when your bus is coming, taking uncertainty out of your commute. With StreetBump, your phone can report rough stretches of road to the City automatically as you drive over them. Data policies have made available an unprecedented volume of information on safety, health and other pressing urban issues. We often talk about strengthening the relationshipbetween citizen and government; these innovations are pointing in that direction and, hopefully, building trust between the public and their local governments.

Jane Jacobs once said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” As such, the Holy Grail for us is to engage with residents in trust-building ways that enable them to become valued partners in how the city works, what we call “peer-produced governance.” Cities have been experimenting with this over the last couple of years. In 2011, Boston used the online civic game Community PlanIT to enable residents learn, deliberate and provide feedback on proposed changes to the performance metrics being used by Boston Public Schools. Through mobile 311 apps, Cities have created an engaging platform for residents to report and resolve requests for service. Philadelphia, the New Urban Mechanics sister city, has been using the website My Philly Rising to supplement intensive face-to-face organizing in some of Philly’s toughest neighborhoods.

These initiatives have shown a lot of promise. Now we need to build on these innovations to bring public participation into the heart of policymaking.

This is not going to happen overnight, nor is the path to changing the interface between citizens and government an obvious one. However, reflecting on the work we’ve done over the past few years, we are starting to see a set of design principles that can help guide our efforts. These are emergent, and so imperfect, but we share them here in the hopes of getting feedback to improve them:

  1. The reasons for engagement must be clear: It is incumbent on us as creators and purveyors of civic technologies to be crystal-clear about what policies we are trying to rewrite, why, and what role the public plays in that process. With the Public Schools, the Community PlanIT game was built to engage residents both on-line and in person to co-design school performance metrics; the result was an approach that was different, and better, than what had originally been proposed, with less discord than was happening in traditional town hall meetings.
  2. Channels must be high-quality and appropriately receptive: When you use Citizens Connect to report quality-of-life issues in Boston, you get an email saying: “Thank you for reporting this pothole. It has now been fixed.” You can’t just cut and paste that email to say: “Thank you for your views on this policy. The policy has now been fixed.” The channel has to make it possible for the City to make meaning of and act on resident input, and then to communicate back to users what has been done and why. And as our friends at Code for America say, they must be “simple, beautiful and easy to use.”
  3. Transparency is vital: Transparency around how the process works and why fosters greater public trust in the system and consequently makes people more likely to engage. Local leaders must therefore be very clear up-front about these points, and communicate them repeatedly and consistently in the face of potential mistrust and misunderstanding.

Moving from potholes to policies requires more than technical fixes or killer apps. But as we build and use these technologies around principles like these, we are starting to see better results in solving seemingly intractable civic problems, and people are starting to believe that peer-produced governance is actually possible. Help us move farther along this path by sharing your principles for this work, giving us feedback on ours, and telling your own stories about how these principles have played out in your experience.

About the Author

Chris Osgood

Chris Osgood is the co-director of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.

About the Author

Nigel Jacob

Nigel Jacob is the co-director of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.

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