Read more articles by Steve Goldsmith

By Stephen Goldsmith • April 1, 2013

Let’s all park our smartphones for a moment and recall an American icon – the old-time switchboard operator.

The switchboard operator of yesteryear did far more than connect phone lines – she managed the fabric of her community.  Births, election results, traffic accidents, and of course local gossip were her daily fare.  She personalized the community, facilitating both  shared engagement and the individual help that derived from her ability to match a resource with a specific problem.

There’s a reason we remember such Americana so nostalgically.  Since then, municipal life has become increasingly dehumanized.  Government hierarchies have replaced direct engagement with citizens.  Public policy experts arrive at scientifically correct solutions in a relative vacuum.  State and city bureaucrats with the best of intentions force “professional” models that look good to a particular government agency on people and businesses. 

Small wonder that the last decade especially has seen a collapse of trust in government.  Citizens are, by and large, deprived from active participation in solving their own problems and trapped by one-size-fits-all, red tape-dominated responses. They are losing faith that government understands, cares about, or serves their needs.

Governments that embrace the virtues of the “civic switchboard” will have the ability to progress from being solution providers to platforms for joint action with their constituents.

All of this is about to change, and change in a big way. Big data, both the data from within government and that generated by the community’s engagement, are upending traditional hierarchies, breaking down barriers, and allowing all levels of government to tailor responses, solve problems before they occur, and engage and more nimbly respond to new ones.  Social media is, in fact, our new connective tissue – the modern-day equivalent of the switchboard operators of yore, except now joining millions, continuously, at the speed of light. Today, those with the technocratic-sounding title of data scientist provide daily breakthroughs in the quality of government interventions.

Our new website “Data-Smart City Solutions” is dedicated to bringing this extraordinary phenomenon to life. 

We’re working to promote the municipal revolution that is the “civic switchboard” – one that leverages big data, including social media, to foster engagement between municipal officials and the citizens they serve.  Governments that embrace the virtues of the “civic switchboard” will have the ability to progress from being solution providers to platforms for joint action with their constituents.  States and cities will be able to better prioritize resources, anticipate problems, customize responses, and unleash the trapped resources of collaborative community action. 

The Civic Switchboard
The civic switchboard: Integrating disparate data sets to drive better results.

Big data is breaking out.  It’s no longer the exclusive province of multinationals and big-budget federal agencies.  Advances in cloud computing, software modeling, and algorithms that can be programmed for increasingly narrow data slices are placing the power of sophisticated data analytics in the hands of municipal line managers everywhere.  State and city government can now understand the public’s needs and desires, model predictive behaviors, and align resources more effectively than ever.

The liberating power of big data, combined with the transformative reach of social media: This is a force for good of historic proportions.  

This website and our broader campaign are housed at the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, the preeminent voice for innovation in government.  Our funding is provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be reporting fresh advances in the big data phenomenon, profiling big data technology and municipal pioneers, and presenting case histories of the many community engagement and big data success stories reanimating our state and cities nationwide.

We all recognize that public leaders today face the daunting challenge of providing high quality public services in the face of growing demands and shrinking resources.  The alignment of big data and social media –reframing government’s role to serve as the “civic switchboard” – is the new management model we need. 

Please join us in embracing this new management paradigm and charting our nation’s municipal future.