By Gal Alon
Technology has disrupted many business traditions. We do not have paper calendars to schedule meetings anymore, nor do we use overhead projectors to show handwritten slides or paper maps to navigate our way.
It’s time to ask how technology can reshape the traditions of our communities. Sensors and algorithms can clearly make them more effective in managing traffic, reducing crime, and improving services. But what about civic engagement? Can it be replaced with sensors tracking our satisfaction?
To answer this question, we should ask what civic engagement is supposed to achieve. The answer is twofold: It should help local government executives make effective decisions, and it should build a public consensus to deliver them. Both can be transformed by technology but can hardly be replaced by sensors. Let’s break this down.
Making Effective Decisions
Local governments are in a constant battle to offer better value for their residents. Is it possible that in 20 years we will have an algorithm that manages local resources based on data? Can we expect a modern “SimCity” simulator to auto-generate a budget and a plan?
The answer is no. Indeed, the growing competition between communities requires managers to collect as much data as possible. While technology can help them collect the data, only residents can help find solutions that can fit into the local context. Dashboards cannot replace wisdom.
Let’s look at an example. My organization helped a city faced with growing dissatisfaction in a major neighborhood. Millions of dollars were invested in renewing the area, based on the data, but it took one open question to find out that there were no street lights during nighttime. Female residents were terrified to walk there.
If the city hadn’t asked residents about what needed to change, the problem might never have been addressed. It’s the people themselves who knew what the issue was and how it could be solved. What we do need is a disruptive way to turn their inputs into insights that can be used.
Algorithms can therefore save communities time and money in analyzing qualitative inputs. Modern NLP (natural language processing) algorithms already do similar work in companies like Google and Facebook. Software cannot create wisdom of its own, however, and organizations still need to openly engage if they want to get solutions.
While helping organizations to ask around 1,000 questions, we quickly discovered that residents want to own their advice. It’s not about the “what,” but also about the “how.” If street lights were to be installed without asking the residents, they wouldn’t feel ownership. A top-down approach usually generates resistance.
Communities are based on commitment, and commitment requires ownership. Great managers are always looking to spread the ownership around. They understand that residents who “own” a program are more likely to support it. If the same program would be dictated in that top-down approach, reactions might be different.
Technology can certainly help us think together with many residents. But if we want it to be the savior of civic engagement, we need to find a way to make residents own their change. More and more residents understand that town hall meetings have little impact on decisions. Residents need to know what happened after the meeting.
We need technology to help us move away from ideation contests into language processing. Once that happens, local government executives can address the insights, without spending time and money to aggregate them.
This is where technology can be disruptive again. Waze, Wikipedia, and other collaborative platforms succeeded in spreading ownership. We need technologies that facilitate real engagement with real people, with the capacity to turn “e pluribus unum” into a reality, making everyone part of change.
We need technology to help us move away from ideation contests into language processing. Once that happens, local government executives can address the insights, without spending time and money to aggregate them. We need online engagement to generate unique value that town hall meetings simply cannot offer.
Let’s not be afraid to ask. Local governments that ask questions are local governments that understand they don’t know everything. It requires courage and humility. Instead of trying to use technology to bypass authentic engagement or replicate town hall meetings into the digital world, we must look for disruptive ways to manage engagement.
Technology can certainly solve the pains of civic participation. It can help people ask the right questions, turn inputs into insights, aggregate key themes, and even create ownership by updating residents on their personal impact on the final decisions.
Closing feedback loops with thousands of residents requires technology. Then again, there are two things that cannot be replaced by algorithms: the need to engage and the willingness to listen.
It is therefore time to talk again with residents and not be afraid to ask. Smart technologies are there to help us make this process faster and easier than ever before.