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Hear Us Now?

A California Survey of Digital Technology's Role in Civic Engagement and Local Government
  • By April Manatt, with Stephen G. Blake, Joe Mathews and Troy K. Schneider
October 2011 |
Hear Us Now?  By April Manatt, with Stephen G. Blake, Joe Mathews and Troy K. Sc

Click here to download the full report.

To learn more about the Oct. 26 event at Stanford exploring these findings, please click here.

Hidden in all the bad news about California’s troubles is this delightful paradox: Californians, while living in a state that experts say is ungovernable, have within their reach new tools that give them greater power to govern themselves than ever before.

Technology is the reason. Often with little public notice or scrutiny, most of California’s 5,000-some local governments are experimenting with technologies to engage the public and improve services. The sophistication of this use of digital technologies for citizen interaction — referred to as eGovernment, digital government, or Government 2.0 — varies. The benefits are wide-ranging.

You can go on-line to have the city police in Santa Clarita check on your home while you’re on vacation. In Pebble Beach, you can add yourself to the Community Services District’s database of local people that need special assistance in the event of an emergency evacuation. You can schedule a visit to your cousin in jail via the Santa Clara County web site or public kiosks. If you need to appear in court or qualify yourself for social services in Nevada County, you can avoid long drives over windy, snowy roads by finding one of the 60 county video cameras set up for direct conferencing with local government. And if you’re a truant in Anaheim, you can avoid school reassignment or prosecution by carrying a hand-held tracking device, provided by your school district and the city police, that monitors your location throughout the day.

The timing of eGovernment’s rise is at once problematic — and fortunate. Public frustration with government and cuts in public spending are natural obstacles to launching new programs. But the same factors also create an opportunity to redesign how government interacts with, and services, the public. Technology, if deployed wisely and efficiently, may provide better engagement, better information and better service delivery, at less of a price. How is California doing so far at this task? The early results are uneven. California’s powerful culture of innovation has produced clear progress from the days of simple government web sites. But the progress has been unevenly distributed. And success stories have yet to be identified, much less encouraged and disseminated. When it comes to eGovernment, Californians don’t know what other California are doing, don’t know what works, and don’t know how to measure success.

Californians deserve — and should demand — a basic level of technology-driven service and engagement, just as they do with analog government services such as emergency response and sanitation.

This report  provides a starting point for moving the state in that direction, by documenting some of many innovations already underway, and charting where California could go in the future.

It focuses on California’s local governments, because they provide most services and are the level of government with which most Californians most often engage. As importantly, local governments are responding to that heightened engagement, and heightened expectations, with experiments in technology that are both more expansive and citizen- focused than those that states and countries generally have undertaken. Thus, the search for promising practices that have the potential to transform the citizen-government relationship starts locally, and the innovations we find there can be expanded to serve broader populations tomorrow.

Click here to download the full report, or here to learn more about the Oct. 26 event at Stanford to discuss these findings. A sampling of civic innovation projects from the report can also be explored using the map below:

Californians deserve — and should demand — a basic level of technology-driven service and engagement, just as they do with analog government services such as emergency response and sanitation.