Friday, September 4, 2009 - By Ben Berkowitz - 2 comments

Government as vending machine?

I had a hard time understanding what government as a platform meant until reading this post from Tim O'Reilly on Tech Crunch this am.

Tim asks, "Can we imagine a new compact between government and the public, in which government puts in place mechanisms for services that are delivered not by government, but by private citizens? In other words, can government become a platform?"

So could government act in a way that encouraged its citizens to not only ask for their needs to be met but to also help meet the needs of others? At SeeClickFix we designed our platform so that citizens would not only be able to hold government accountable but also hold themselves accountable. We allow anyone to deem themselves a "fixer" and create a watch area that alerts them to issues in their neighborhood.
We see Fixers fall under the categories of Public Works, Utility Company, State DOT, Cycling Coalition, City Councilman, Parks Groups, business improvement districts and the Good Samaritan.

While reporting issues is a valuable citizen service that can potentially act in the stead of city inspectors SeeClickFixers are also providing other traditional government services such as: graffiti removal, parks clean-ups, documenting speeding with video cameras, providing engineering and design solutions for road improvements and probably most importantly sharing and redistributing municipal information with each other to lessen the information requests on government.(We've even seen a rebel pothole patching crew.)

In a recent meeting between a large city IT dept and a group of Open Data thinkers a co-conspirator of mine suggested that we, the outsiders, take every other seat in the board room so that when the city officials sat down it would not appear as if it was us vs. them. This is the type of thinking that needs to continue so that governments understand when we ask for them to "open up" it is not so we can bring them down but so we can help them succeed for us.

SeeClickFix's slogan "Power to the Community" includes government as one of the community members and we hope more and more they will see themselves that way.

Tim says, "Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection… And when the vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine."

I think that if you want people to stop shaking the vending machine you have to provide the keys to the backside of the machine. Here's an example:

Last winter the Connecticut State budget made it such that the City of New Haven was going to have to shutdown overflow shelters for those on the streets. Before conceding defeat public officials made the public aware of the issue and asked for their help in funding the shelters through private donations. Events were held across the city and public officials from the Mayor to State Legislators to City Council all pleaded for citizen aid. (yup you heard it: Citzen Aid!)
When citizens saw that many would be left on the street local community groups began to lobby their members and their neighbors for private donations to fund the traditionally government subsidized service.
Within weeks the shelters had received more than the city had budgeted and a month in advance of the deadline.

If governments open the back door to the vending machine we won't have to shake as much and the vending machine can shake us back occasionally.(sorry to butcher your analogy Tim).


  1. I thought both your post and Tim's were spot on. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the government can help citizens succeed and it is refreshing to hear this again from other people. Keep up the great work! Your site rocks!

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks Sid,
    Appreciate the support. There's been a ton of positive feedback about the suggestion of Governments and Citizens working as partners. Hats off to Tim for the vending machine metaphore which nails the current state of things.

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