Last year I attended a presentation of what it was supposed to be the new eGov strategy of a major Smart City. They presented to us the motivation, how much technology has changed from a web presence to multi-channel, multi-screen. How people now look at more than one screen at the same time – do you have friends working in marketing? Then you know it ! – how cities have to keep up with these developments …
Underlying the presentation was a message expressed in the form of a metaphor: Wouldn’t it be nice if all city services were available in your mobile? The whole city services in your smartphone! The city-hall in your pocket !
Metaphors are always compelling! Our abilities as a specie are dramatically skewed towards visual representations which makes visual metaphors extremely easy to grasp and capable of mobilizing our imagination. However, for this to happen they must be new, they should not be already incorporate into our lives. And, let me tell you, everybody was checking Facebook and twitter during this presentation …
eGov has not been akin to metaphors, in fact we can easily tell the latest history of eGov in terms of visual metaphors.
The first metaphor that transformed our understanding of eGov was the web and nobody described its promise better than Bill Gates, the web was for the first time in history Information at your fingertips. Its promise: convenience, abundance and easiness. You no longer have to go through these endless lines trying to figure your way through windows of civil servants that many times seem designed with the objective in mind of confusing desperate citizens, just go to the web and everything is there, easy and convenient.
Then the reality of multi-screen came, webs had to be responsive and a we should think on the right mix of what could be done in the web with what should be thought for the “post-pc” devices. The iPad & the iPhone changed everything and new ways of interaction appeared.
Finally mobile first was the new mantra. Mobile was recognized to be the prime device where we interact while the rest were filling more specialized tasks.
Certainly all these metaphors resonate well to the User Interaction community and explain how we have interiorized technology with new meanings in terms of our forms of interaction. But, what about the contents? In terms of contents many things changed too: markets became conversations, social relationships moved to the web and so did engagement (just take a look at the recent political movements in Spain and you’ll be convinced of the power of this transformation).
In fact, all the previous metaphors: web eGov, multichannel – multidevice – multiscreen eGov and mobile eGov all suffer from being Gov centric in a world dominated by conversations in Social Networks. We still have this gov trying to talk to us, when we want to talk back and engage in a dialogue in a conversation. This is even more odd when we realize that we are not dealing with users and companies but with cities and citizens where the city belongs to … citizens.
Maybe, arrived at this point, it could be interesting to take a look at what eGov leaders are doing. Personally, I think the contribution of New York and Chicago has been decisive in eGov in the last years. New York implemented Open311 a multiplatform service gathering problems and complaints from citizens through different sources and interfaces with a very high level of transparency. You can be informed of the situation of your request and of all the other requests in the platform. Efficiency ratings and KPI are also public, how many complaints per day are being solved, maximum waiting time, etc.
On a different path, Chicago is the leading City in Big Data. What is important is not that they released lots of Big Data datasets, but that they managed to engage with organizations and benefit from this release. Releasing by itself has no value if nobody does anything with it. Big Data, and in general Open Data, enable an informed conversation devolving the data to citizens and allowing special interest groups, journalist, citizens and researchers to have data to look with their own lenses to the problems, find solutions and support argumentations. It democratizes and enables the discussion by democratizing the information. Therefore, it is a key ingredient of this transformation from vertical top-down govs to horizontal govs.
Big Data allows engaging orgranizations in breaking information asymetries thus democratizes and enables the discussion by democratizing the information.
Obviously participatory budgeting and participatory decision taking are not akin to all this but an integral part of it.
What are these two cities engaged on now? Well, they are building a new 311, yes they joined forces to revamp what is one of the leading platforms in the world with a different point of view: they want it to be more Facebook-like.
Going back to the metaphors, social networks look like a perfect fit for a city platform. Now it is not so much about providing info (Google does that really well) or services (that should be easy ! banks, bookstores, … do that really well since long !) but engaging citizens into a conversation about what works and what doesn’t and what should be done. It is not the time of standard top-down solutions but the one of opening the data and weighting a diversity of approaches, it is not the time of providing pre- arranged answers but being able to listen and mediate in a discussion ensuring fairness.
For hundreds of years, open town hall meetings have been providing this kind of open conversations, now the interaction move to digital and it is time to re-invent this relation in digital terms. The same way that many of our discussions moved to the web.
This is also the only way to be inclusive. If we continue to schedule meetings that only professional politicians or extremely involved citizens can attend, leaving everybody else outside of the discussion with the poor excuse that was open, then we will be changing one lobby for another one (hopefully better) , but nothing really interesting will happen.
We can do better than that and we should do better. And better, being inclusive in the XXI century means being digital.
eGov is better represented as a Social Network where vertical management approaches are being replaced by horizontal conversations
Conversations should go beyond concrete problems and engage into the discussion of policies, laws and approaches tearing down existing information asymmetries by opening Big and Small Data and empowering journalists, researchers, developers and citizens to use it.
For centuries cities have been the social fabric of our civilization, what better, more inclusive metaphor can we find for city eGov than social networks?