Saturday, January 9, 2010 - By Ben Berkowitz - No comments

Distributed 311 for Distributed Governance


Nearly 700 watchers were created on SeeClickFix this week...the majority of these watchers were government agencies. Many of them are signing up for SeeClickFix's low costs professional solutions.

Why are so many cities adapting so quickly?

Here's my gut:

A few years back smart municipal governments decided that customer service needed to be a priority if WeThePeople were going to be happy government consumers. We needed 911 less 600 for a lesser degree of urgency. 311 would be the solution to saving communities where 911 was the solution to saving lives.

The challenges of 311 arose quickly. I would (possibly naively) sum those challenges up by saying simply:
1)
its taxing to encourage calls for service
2) its taxing to process calls for service
3) its taxing to service

To encourage citizens previously discouraged from constructive participation to suddenly engage is a task in itself. To handle the engagement is equally challenging. Addressing this from within City Hall is not sustainable for large Gov nor scalable for small Gov.

The root of 311's problem goes back to its evolution from its closest cousin 911. 911, by evolution, is locally and institutionally managed as its funding comes from state taxes on local utilities. One might argue that a federally funded centralized 311 would be the way to better handle the situation. I would argue that centralization is an old and much less efficient way to solve problems in an age of distributed communication.

To reduce the cost of keeping a consumer-minded constituency happy we need to distribute the overhead of the centralized system that creates the satisfaction of a feedback loop. We also need to throw-out the idea of citizen solely as consumer and think of ourselves as distributors as well.

How SeeClickFix envisions solving this problem from the Citizen Up:

To solve problem one (getting the participants to participate) we have taken the entry point to 311 and placed it everywhere that the consumer is. SeeClickFix exists on their different smart phone platforms, on their phone line, on their PC, on their government website, on their community group website, on their facebook page and most visibly on news sites that they read multiple times a day. As New Haven Mayor John Destefano said to me when were introducing the idea of SeeClickFix, "The Yankees don't care who you bought the ticket from to get to the game, they just care that you get to the game."

Proof that it works: When the Boston Globe posted its SeeClickFix map over 800 potholes were reported in weeks around Eastern Massachusetts at zero marketing expense or energy to municipalities. Problem one solved.

Enter problem two: There needed to be good way to distribute those reports to the 30 different municipalities that were accountable for fixing those potholes.

The solution - Watch Areas. Watch areas are a tool that is instantly scalable to the unique geography of each responsible municipality. They can be turned on by citizens in minutes without the hesitancy of bureaucracy. All issues were documented on the Boston Globe for all to see and for places where citizens, the paper or Government had already set-up watch areas - alerts were sent. Problem two solved.

Communication channels have been opened and communication has been delivered to the correct parties. Enter problem three: How could those parties provide a feedback loop for all of this new inbound communication?

The answer lies in the different types of communication that were coming in. For the pothole complaints the answer might be to fill the pothole with asphalt and fix the problem. But what if there were no resources? The answer might be "you can see how many potholes that need to be fixed as well as we can. Now you the citizen understand what we're up against." We're an industrious global citizenry . We like to know the truth so we can assess and properly solve the problems. That's why we like transparency.

What if the problem is graffiti, littering or a broken park bench and tax dollars have dried up? For that situation we provide a tool that not only allows distribution of communication to the traditional "fixing" channels, but to the rest of the community as a whole (anyone can create a watch area). When you open up the fixing channels to community groups, parks groups, private business and individual citizens, you distribute the responsibility as well as the communication. Problem 3 Solved.

Over the past two years these are the philosophies that have driven the functionality and development of SeeClickFix as it aspires to be universal and distributed 311.

We have a lot more to do and you have a lot more to tell us in order to make it better. As more governments join the media, community groups and citizens on SeeClickFix, our solutions will become more tailored to their needs as well.

Some governments are set-up to distribute services better than others but none to their full potential. All Government could use more help from their citizens and it seems that many are now willing to ask for it.

Distributed Governance and as such Distributed 311 is not what gov can do for its citizens, but what its citizens can do for themselves.


As an addition to this post I wanted to add a video that one of our new clients, Manor Texas, put together on how SeeClickFix works. Dustin from Manor explains the distribution internally that makes SeeClickFix more efficient for Gov accountability and response.

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