Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Gov2.0 Meets D&D: Reflections on the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation (Part II)

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Here are a few more observations I took away from NCDD 2010 Portland: The Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation last weekend. You can read my earlier post about this excellent event here.

Gov2.0 meets D&D
There seems a be a convergence underway between the open government or “Gov 2.0” movement and the dialogue and deliberation (or D&D) community. The Gov 2.0 crowd is largely focused on opening up government datasets in the interest of transparency and civic innovation. It’s largely driven by government techies and open-source geeks keen on exposing data to the public so that citizens can create apps that improve, augment, or streamline government services and make government more responsive and accountable. For example, see efforts like Open311, Portland’s CivicApps project, the Vancouver Open Data Catalogue, the Open Gov West conferences, and Code for America.

Meanwhile, the D&D community has long focused on spreading better offline face-to-face interaction, through innovative social “technologies” like the World Cafe, Open Space, Future Search, Wisdom Councils, Study Circles, and Conversation Cafes. These are all structured dialogue or deliberation processes that are designed to better harness the collective intelligence of groups — for better learning, discovery, planning, and decision-making. And maybe it’s a generational thing (most D&D practitioners are not Net Natives), but until recently I’ve always sensed a general distrust of online communication technologies and strong preference for offline dialogue among most of my friends in the D&D community.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions that have long embraced technology, like AmericaSpeaks, MetroQuest, and the many online forums run by E-Democracy.org. Governments experimenting with online public consultation is not new. And there is a significant community of online facilitators that has been steadily growing for over a decade. But recent advances in deliberative software and the exponential growth of social media has changed the game, seeding the ground for much wider adoption of online public engagement strategies.

At the NCDD conference, I was excited to see a surge of interest in experimentation with new technologies for online outreach and citizen engagement, especially among government officials. I believe this is driven by several factors:

  • Growth of Social Media: As citizens get used to interacting with businesses and nonprofits through social utilities like Facebook and Twitter, they’re expecting to be able to interact with government officials and institutions via the same channels. Institutions are adopting enterprise social networking and collaboration tools internally, too. It only makes sense that those institutions would begin to engage the public via similar tools.
  • Eroding Trust in Government: Public trust and confidence in government is at record lows. Conventional methods of public engagement — public hearings, surveys, citizen advisory panels, public notices in newspapers — are boring and ineffective, and may well spur more apathy than engagement. As state and local government budgets grow leaner by the day, officials are desperate for new approaches that could help them do more with less.
  • Gov 2.0: The open gov meme is spreading fast by word-of-mouth in government circles. Public officials are seeing successful experiments with open data and the range of new technologies for collaboration and civic dialogue that are emerging. And many of them are eager to get in the game.
  • Deliberative Software: Recent advances in online dialogue and deliberation technologies mean governments have more and better tools to choose from in crafting their public engagement strategies.

The Importance of Inclusion
The need for fostering “equitable dialogue” was a strong undercurrent at the conference. In the World Cafe dialogue on Friday evening, one participant asked, “Is public engagement considered a leisure activity? For whom?” To which another replied that, unfortunately, Maslow was right — the people who would benefit most from getting more engaged are also the most likely to consider civic activities leisure, especially when they are struggling to feed their families. Several participants pointed out that the crowd at the conference was overwhelmingly white and over 40. One of the facilitators kicked himself publicly when he realized that, despite holding the conference at a university, no notices were posted on campus inviting students to attend.

It was also pointed out that we need to be careful not to let our fascination with new technologies blind us to their shortcomings. The digital divide is still very real. That means we need to pay attention to accessibility, and keep legacy modes of engagement in place — i.e. face-to-face hearings and community meetings, phone surveys, etc. — so that nobody is left out. Because for democracy to truly work, everybody needs a seat at the table.

Reflections on the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation (Part I)

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As I write this, I’m rocketing down the rails on the Amtrak from Portland to Seattle, headed home after the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. This inspiring confab was the last of 5 regional gatherings held around the country this fall by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a nonprofit that promotes the use of innovative social processes for better discovery, learning, and decision-making, in settings from neighborhood groups to corporate boardrooms, nonprofits to universities to legislative bodies. It was hosted by Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Concordia University.

The theme of the conference was “public engagement” — which was broken down into three broad topics:

  • Quality Public Engagement: What is quality public engagement and how do we educate others about it so it becomes broadly adopted?
  • Online Engagement: How can online technology enhance public engagement?
  • Collaborations that Work: How can we strengthen connections between public administrators, engagement practitioners and the public?

Kudos to NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher and the entire organizing team (especially crack facilitators Walt Roberts and Tod Sloan) for putting together a fantastic event that left me enlightened and inspired. It was the perfect antidote to the toxic partisanship of the recent election season.

A Few Highlights
My head is still spinning from the rich stew of ideas, models, processes and projects presented at the event, to say nothing of the amazing people. Herewith, a few highlights:

1. The People
The best thing about this gathering was the people. (I love hanging out with facilitators and social process geeks.) The attendees, about 180 in all, consisted of a mix of professional facilitators, academics, community organizers, techies, consultants, corporate and philanthropic leaders, and government officials. It was great to spend time with old friends and co-conspirators like Joseph McCormick, Susan Partnow, Howard Silverman, John Spady, Peggy Holman, Jim Rough, and one of my personal heroes, Tom Atlee. To finally meet folks long I’ve admired, like DeAnna Martin and Sandy Heierbacher. And to make tons of new connections with inspiring people who are in the trenches daily endeavoring to make democracy work.

2. The Process
Most conferences (and I attend a lot) are sorely lacking in one respect: interactivity. They don’t build in enough opportunities for dialogue — between audience and presenters, or, more importantly, between participants. The old, didactic model of experts at the front of the room dropping knowledge on the audience followed by a short Q&A period misses so many opportunities for participants to interact in creative, generative ways that spark new connections, deepen the conversation and harness the wisdom of everyone in the room. This conference, by contrast, was beautifully designed and facilitated for maximum dialogue potential.

The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a World Cafe dialogue, facilitated by Walt Roberts, on the state of public engagement. About 50 of us spent two hours shuffling from table to table every 15-20 minutes as we moved through a series of questions about the state of public engagement and ways to improve it. Between each round, we passed the mic around the room as people shared insights that had come up at their tables, and a team of graphic facilitators recorded our thoughts with markers on large paper murals with images and keywords culled from the report-backs. This was a great way to quickly meet a bunch of new people, generate a wide range of ideas and insights, and set a conversational, collaborative tone for the rest of the conference.

The main event took place Saturday from 9-5, with all 180 participants in attendance. The morning consisted of three plenary presentations of innovative dialogue-driven public engagement projects from Washington and Oregon (more on the projects below). After each presentation, rather than going straight to Q&A, the audience members turned to each other in groups of four to discuss what we had just heard. The mic was then passed around for people to share their observations and insights, or ask questions of the presenters.

The afternoon breakout sessions were organized using Open Space, a self-organizing process where anyone in the room can offer a session on any topic. Some two dozen sessions were offered — ranging from brainstorming sessions on upcoming public engagement projects to technology demos, conversations on race, gender, and privilege to envisioning a sustainable future for suburbs. John Spady and I presented together a demonstration of the web platform my company, Zanby, built for the Countywide Community Forums (more on that below).

After the breakouts we reconvened for a final wrap-up session where, again, the mic was passed around the room so that anyone could offer insights or reflections. In keeping with the goal of maximizing interaction, the last thing facilitator Walt Roberts did before closing was to invite everyone to look around the room and find someone you’ve been meaning to connect with but haven’t yet had the chance.

I wish conference planners everywhere would take a few pages from NCDD’s book and design many more opportunities for dialogue and interactivity into their events.

3. The Projects
The three projects featured in the morning plenaries were all noteworthy.

  • City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI): Several ONI staff presented about the variety of ways the city is institutionalizing public involvement in decision-making processes throughout the city government. Afifa Ahmed-Shafi, ONI’s Public Involvement Best Practices Coordinator, described the Public Involvement Principles [PDF] adopted last August by the city council. According to the ONI website, “[The] principles include partnership, early involvement, building relationships and community capacity, inclusiveness and equity, good quality process design and implementation, transparency, and accountability.” The city council also adopted a requirement that every measure submitted at council be accompanied by a “public involvement report” documenting how citizens were consulted in developing the proposal. ONI is currently conducting a baseline assessment of public involvement across all city offices, and is looking at other experiments such as participatory budgeting.
  • Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review: Established by the Oregon legislature in 2008, this reform institutionalized a citizen jury-style process for evaluating the pros and cons of statewide ballot measures. “24 Oregon voters are selected at random, and then demographically balanced to fairly represent a cross-section of the entire state electorate. This panel participates in balanced hearings where campaign advocates and policy experts present the arguments and facts about the measure.” After several days of testimony, the panelists decide how they would vote on the measures and write pro and con statements. The statements and vote totals are included in the official state voter’s guide.
  • Countywide Community Forums (CCF): [Full Disclosure: CCF is a Zanby client.] In 2007 Dick Spady, founder of Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, proposed a ballot initiative to establish a periodic public consultation process for King County government. After supporters gathered 80,000 signatures the county council adopted the measure before it had a chance to go to a public vote. Since then, every 4-6 months, the County Executive or the CCF board picks a topic and declares a new forum round. Past topics have included public safety, customer service, and county budget priorities. For a period of 4-6 weeks, the public (anyone who lives or works in King County) is invited to become registered “citizen councilors” and host or attend a meeting in their neighborhood where they watch a brief overview video about the topic, discuss the issues, and take an opinion survey. Alternatively, citizen councilors can watch the video, discuss, and take the survey entirely online at the CCF website. The website, which is powered by Zanby’s online community platform, also features a map and calendar of face-to-face meetings, as well as online groups for staff and volunteers to collaborate and manage the program. When a forum round is over, the survey responses are tabulated and presented in a report to the County Auditor, County Council, and the public. The most recent forum round, which took place earlier this fall, focused on “county budget priorities” and resulted in 766 surveys submitted.

I also learned about several other cool initiatives at the conference:

  • Marine Map – A web-based decision support tool for multi-stakeholder marine spatial planning, developed by EcoTrust. With some cool GIS technology, participants in a live workshop setting or online can draw a circle on a map to propose a protected area and get an immediate analysis of the impacts on habitat, fish populations, and economic impacts on nearby ports and fishing fleets. Check out this video.
  • A Pattern Language for Social Process (no link) – A physical card deck being developed by a woman named Tree that is meant to aide with creative problem-solving in community and organizational settings. I’m still trying to get my hands on a copy of the deck.
  • Ideas4Oregon – After this idea-generation contest drew 542 submissions for creative ways to address social problems, the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon’s largest community foundation, is working on plans to build a platform for better connecting the state’s social sector.
  • Family Support Network – Has a newly redesigned website that helps community activists to map assets (such as skills or equipment) at the neighborhood level and trains “community weavers” who help neighbors match needs and assets in times of crisis, increasing community resilience.

In my next post, I’ll share some further observations on the ideas and issues that came up in the discussions at the Portland conference.

Why MoveOn Should Introduce Me to My Neighbors

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Recently, my dad proposed in his back-page column in the May/June Utne Reader, titled “An Open Letter to MoveOn,” that the nation’s premier progressive organization should go beyond issue-driven campaigns and “lead a community organizing movement across America.” (Yes, in case you’re wondering, my dad founded Utne Reader, and I worked there as a writer and editor for eight years.)

I couldn’t agree more. I especially like his suggestion that MoveOn stage a series of large revival-style cultural events designed to introduce members to each other:

MoveOn could kick off the movement by hosting stadium-sized events, harking back to 19th-century chautauquas and tent shows. Attendees would sit together according to particular affinities: parents of young children, schoolteachers, health care workers, clergy, small-business owners, elders. Like-minded participants could share their ideas about particular issues, like clean, green energy and single-payer health care. Or, if seating were assigned based on zip code and postal route, people would meet their neighbors in a positively charged environment.

All this would be interspersed with musical entertainment, stand-up polemic, and perhaps a Jumbotron visit from Obama himself. Consider it an extended-family/neighborhood reunion in which participants would meet some long-lost relatives for the very first time.

After the event, attendees would all receive lists of the 20 other participants who live closest to them. House parties would follow. Instead of discussing issues, we would simply get to know each other by telling each other our stories of “self, us, and now.”

(Telling stories of “self, us, and now” is a technique used in the Camp MoveOn organizer trainings, one of which my dad attended last year, and which inspired his column.)

I’d be thrilled to attend a rally of 5, 10 or 20 thousand MoveOn members in my area, knowing that I’d hear great bands and speakers and have a chance to meet and converse with other progressives in my neighborhood.

People often accuse MoveOn of mere “clicktivism,” of sapping the activist energies of grassroots progressives by calling on people to sign petition after petition on narrow issue campaigns. People either feel they can just click and be done with it, or they get tired of the incessant calls to action and tune out, the argument goes.

That argument is unfair. MoveOn has done more in the past decade than any other organization to build the American progressive movement, to give it a sense of identity and an outlet to flex its political muscle. The group has pioneered new models of online advocacy and fundraising, developing many of the tools and strategies that are now de rigeur in both issue and electoral campaigns across the political spectrum. Most importantly, MoveOn has experimented with new ways to move people from online to offline. Every person who signs a MoveOn petition is invited to take further action — write or call Congress, donate to the campaign, attend a rally, vigil or organizing meeting. MoveOn was largely responsible for mobilizing people to turn out on what became the largest global day of protest in history, the simultaneous anti-war rallies in hundreds of cities across the US and around the globe on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003. And if it weren’t for MoveOn paving the way, and providing critical early support, the presidential campaigns of both Howard Dean and Barack Obama might never have been possible.

Yet some criticism is justified. MoveOn’s sheer scale (5 million members) and obsession with numbers can make individual activists feel insignificant and campaigns feel impersonal.

As the de facto connective tissue of much of the progressive movement, MoveOn has an opportunity to go beyond issue campaigns and strengthen the movement by introducing its members to each other. Not under the rubric of any particular campaign or action. Simply connecting people to each other at the local level so they can start conversations and build community would be a powerful step toward revitalizing and re-engaging progressives, many of whom tuned out after pouring their hearts out to put Obama in the White House.

Introducing MoveOn members (like myself) to each other and inviting us to share stories of “self, us, and now,” and to start conversations about our hopes and dreams for our families, neighborhoods, country and planet could be the best way to inoculate the body politic against the cynicism and hatred emanating from the Tea Party, Congress, and the media. It would surely lead to more committed local activism, would surface new issues and ideas, and could rekindle the sense of hope and possibility that drove so many of us to pound the pavement and open our wallets for Obama in 2008. As my dad says: “This could be the start of an earthshaking nationwide movement.”

So how about it, MoveOn? Please introduce me to my neighbors.

Written by leifutne

September 15, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Getting to Know Deanna (An excerpt from the book Share This!)

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[Cross-posted, with minor edits, from the Zanby blog. -LU]

My good friend, co-conspirator, social media maven, and all-round diva of awesomeness Deanna Zandt has a new book out. And it mentions Zanby! Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking (Berrett-Koehler) is chock-full of anecdotes and case studies drawn from her own life as a social activist, artist, and media maker. Deanna illustrates the many ways social media improves our relationships and enables new forms of political and social expression that are changing the world for the better.

One of those anecdotes recounts how Deanna and I met up in Brooklyn two years ago. (And it gives a nice plug for Zanby.) We barely knew each other before that, having met in passing at a conference. But, thanks mainly to Twitter and Facebook, we were able to connect, build trust, and grow a friendship with a depth and speed that would have been virtually impossible just a few short years earlier, considering that she lives in Brooklyn, I live in Seattle, and we see each other once a year, if we’re lucky.

Here, with Deanna’s permission, is an excerpt from pages 41-43 of Share This! where she tells our story:

Your Life Makes History

Now that relationships and trust influence how we receive and manage digital information, we’re becoming more connected, and thus we have the capacity to be more empathetic. That trust-created empathy will lead us away from the isolation and resulting apathy that we’ve experienced as a culture, arising from the 20th century’s focus on mass communications and market demographics.

Here’s a story about how building trust through social networks has worked for me. A couple of years ago, I spoke at a conference in northern California. After my song and dance, Leif Utne, the vice president of community development for the software company Zanby, came up to introduce himself. He was working on a project that he wanted to get my employer, Jim Hightower, involved with. We exchanged contact info and became Facebook friends; later we started following each other on Twitter.

About a year and a half later, Leif messaged me to say that he was coming to Brooklyn for a visit and wanted to know if I’d like to get coffee. Sure! Of course! When we sat down a few days later, I asked him how the baby was–he and his wife had spent a long time adopting a baby from Guatemala, and Leif had even lived there for ten months. He lit up and showed me recent photos, and then asked how my dog, Izzy, was adjusting to life in Brooklyn. I had adopted her from a rescue organization, and we laughed at how the processes for adopting dogs and children were eerily similar.

Leif asked if he could show me a new online service that he’d taken a job with, one that would give groups a way to connect their memberships. Absolutely, I said. We did a run-through, and he talked about some of his company’s successes. I started thinking of clients who could really use something like this tool and offered to put him in touch with them.

My online friendship with Leif is significant for several reasons. Social media enabled a kind of “identity authentication” between us. I was aware of Leif’s family’s work with the Utne Reader before I met him, but being connected via social media gave me insight into some of his values and interests. And vice versa. More important, though, it allowed us to collect seemingly unrelated fragments of information about one another over time, and to create a wide-angled picture of the other person with those fragments. Technology writer Clive Thompson calls this phenomenon “ambient awareness” of the people around us.

It doesn’t impact my life at all to know that Leif is heading to the airport, and he probably doesn’t care that I spent an extra 30 minutes with my dog in the park this morning. But over time, we are able to see a portrait of one another’s lives take shape and feel connected. While Leif’s trip to the airport doesn’t affect my daily life, if he misses his plane, I feel bad for him. There’s the empathy, simply by being aware of another person’s “mundane” activities. Our portraits of one another facilitated an in-person conversation that otherwise would have been stilted and awkward:

“So, you, uh, have kids?”

“No, you?”

“Yeah, one. A little boy.”

“Uh-huh.”

Instead, we were able to tap into what we care about pretty quickly, and the landing into the “business” end of the meeting was much smoother.

Admittedly, experimenting with what it means to share different parts of our lives can sometimes be uncomfortable. Chip Conley, the CEO of a family of boutique hotels in northern California called Joie de Vivre, offers a case in point. In 2009, he wrote about the fallout from photos he posted to Facebook from his latest Burning Man trip. Some workers were surprised to see Conley in a tutu and a sarong. The complicated part wasn’t that he didn’t want them online, or that his investors or board members didn’t want them online; it was that some employees struggled with seeing their fearless leader show a carefree side of himself that didn’t “fit” with the standard work environment. We’re all still determining what we each individually consider acceptable amounts of information, as well as what we’ll tolerate organizationally and culturally.

Thanks to the alienating effect of mass communications, our ability to converse directly with one another, and to engage with the larger culture in a meaningful way, has withered. While no one has figured out a precise formula for what amount or mix of sharing creates empathy, presenting real pictures of real lives indisputably frees us from our pigeonholes. Social networks give us the opportunity to reengage with one another.

Order Share This! at your favorite bookstore, or online at Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Written by leifutne

September 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Helium Hijinx

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The UpTake crew – me, Jacob Wheeler and Mike McIntee – sing like the Chipmunks at Netroots Nation 2010.

Written by leifutne

July 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Posted in music, videos

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I’m going to Netroots Nation 2010

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This week I’m making my first trip to Sin City. On Wednesday I head to Las Vegas for Netroots Nation 2010, an annual confab of 2000+ progressive activists, bloggers, techies and politicos, taking place at the Rio Hotel. According to a press release, this is “the largest gathering of the Democratic base ahead of the midterm elections… Energizing the Netroots was key to Democratic successes in 06’ and 08’ and will be important again this year.”

I’ll be there representing Zanby, which will have a big presence in the exhibit hall. We’ll be showing off the latest version of our innovative platform for online collaboration, group management, and social networking. And we’ll be touting some recent client projects like Rework the World and The UpTake.

We will also be sharing booth space with our friends and allies at Warecorp, a full-service custom web dev shop, The UpTake, an award-winning video citizen journalism outfit (and Zanby client), and Mobile Roots, maker of mobile apps for political campaigns.

So if you’re going to Netroots, drop by our booth and say hi!

More from the press release:

Speakers at the conference include: Senator Reid, Speaker Pelosi, Secretary LaHood, Sen. Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Ed Schultz, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Sen. Ben Cardin, Sen. Tom Udall, Rep. Alan Grayson, Rep. Raul Grijalva, Rep. Jared Polis, Rep. Donna Edwards, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Van Jones, Rich Trumka, Tim Wise, Lizz Winstead, Majora Carter, Markos Moulitsas, Tarryl Clark, Bill Halter, George Goehl, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Deepak Bhargava, Gerald McEntee, Eliseo Medina and many more.

You can see the full schedule here: http://netrootsnation.org/agenda

Written by leifutne

July 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Posted in politics, tech

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The City as Community-Building Platform

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[Cross-posted from the Zanby blog. -LU]

I recently helped facilitate Open Gov West, a two-day conference on “Gov 2.0” organized by my friend Sarah Schacht, executive director of Knowledge As Power. Over 200 open government advocates and practitioners came to Seattle City Hall from across the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, plus a few from farther afield.

Day 1 was a traditional conference, with programmed panels, a keynote speaker, and “work sessions” where attendees came up with recommendations for action in the areas of open government policy; data and document standards; funding; and working with non-traditional partners. Day 2 was an unconference, where anyone could offer a session on any topic.

At a discussion session on Day 2 titled “The Architecture of Gov’t 2.0,” Vancouver-based facilitator and web strategist Gordon Ross posed a provocative question: “What would the city website of your dreams do?”

The City Website of My Dreams
I’ve been pondering that question for a long time. Here’s what I wish I had said in that session:

The city website of my dreams would not only let me find relevant information, process transactions, lodge complaints, and communicate with elected officials. It would help me connect with my neighbors.

When I move into a new neighborhood, I wish I could go to the city’s website and join a group for my block (or a collection of several blocks) — complete with discussions, event calendar, photos, videos, and listings of relevant city services, businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, and so forth. That way I could plug in and get to know my neighborhood (and my neighbors) quicker than ever. I could browse archived discussions to see what issues have been on my neighbors’ minds, peruse photos and videos from recent block parties and festivals, and check the calendar for upcoming events. And if I moved to a new neighborhood, I could just quit the online group for my old neighborhood and join my new one, taking my profile, friends, and history with me.

Such a platform would give me and my neighbors a powerful tool to self-organize — everything from potlucks to crime-watch patrols, yard sales, childcare swaps, street cleanups and community meetings about city policies of interest to the neighborhood. We could organize car-, bike-, and tool-sharing coops. It would give us a quick way to share alerts about burglaries or fires.

And it would give the city a powerful way of targeting communications to specific blocks. Need to clear the street because of a snow emergency, tree-trimming, or a broken water main? Just send a message to that block’s listserve and word will spread fast. Add an SMS gateway to send text messages to residents’ mobile phones and word will spread even faster. Connect it all to a CRM database and an Open 311 system and you’ve got a powerful tool set for citizens to engage with the city not just as individuals, but as groups, as neighborhoods, as communities.

That’s the grand vision the old community organizer in me has for what a city website could do for citizen engagement.

Pieces of this vision already exist, mostly organized ad hoc on private platforms like Facebook, Google Groups, Ning, and all manner of blogs and email lists. There are a few organized, larger-scale examples. E-Democracy.org hosts email discussion lists for 25+ communities across the US, UK and New Zealand. Frankfurt Gestalten (“Create Frankfurt”), is a Drupal-based project inspired by the great pothole apps FixMyStreet (UK) and SeeClickFix (US), but with a greater emphasis on groups organizing around neighborhood initiatives proposed by users. The Dutch foundation Web in de Wijk (“Web in the Neighborhoods”) provides a toolkit for residents to create their own neighborhood websites. The explosion of hyperlocal news blogs — like WestSeattleBlog and MyBallard in Seattle — has proven that there’s a hunger for online spaces that support offline neighborhood-level community-building.

Of all the sites I’ve seen, Neighbors for Neighbors comes closest to the vision I describe above. This Boston-based nonprofit has built Ning networks for all 18 neighborhoods across the city, stitched together as a citywide network under an umbrella WordPress blog. City staff, neighborhood activists, landlords, business owners, police, and residents of all stripes are active on the site, using it to organize everything from potlucks to pickup soccer games to public meetings about saving neighborhood libraries.

But I have yet to see such a network of self-organizing hyper-local community groups fully integrated with a city’s website.

Zanby’s Groups-of-Groups Approach
I’d love to build a system like this on the Zanby platform. Our unique groups-of-groups architecture enables the clustering of local groups into “group families” around any criteria — like geography, of course, but also other affinities that might unite certain block groups to others in different parts of the city, like proximity to schools, libraries, parks, transit lines, waterfronts, commercial zones, etc. Those groups could easily network and collaborate with other groups across the city with shared interests by joining group families organized around those interests. This architecture allows groups to network with other groups.

Imagine, for example, that a block in Boston lies within earshot of a freeway, borders a river, has a transit stop on it and is home to many Spanish speakers. In addition to belonging to one of those 18 geographic neighborhood group families, my block could join families for, say, all the blocks across the city that lie along the same light-rail line, or along Boston Harbor and the Charles River, or along highways, or with similar demographics. Those groups might share certain interests and concerns with each other that don’t map to the geographic neighborhood lines.

Meanwhile, a group a few blocks away might not be so concerned about freeway noise or transit safety. But it has a community garden and a retirement home on it. That group might join group families organized around elderly issues and community gardens. The host of a Highway Neighbors group family could create events, discussions, documents, etc. that are easily shared with all of the groups in the family.

The key concept here is that group families allow groups to network and collaborate with other groups.

It’s also fairly easy to integrate third-party tools and data into a Zanby community, using APIs, RSS feeds and embeddable objects. So each block group and neighborhood group family could serve as a social media dashboard displaying discussions, events, documents, etc. generated by Zanby, side-by-side with feeds of info from city databases, video streams of public meetings, live chats with residents and city officials, etc.

The Other ‘L’ Word: Liability
Legal experts have raised concerns about liability when the government hosts open forums for civic dialogue. Government lawyers get nervous about being sued for censorship if, for example, an employee deletes a profane or racist comment on a city blog or message board. And if they don’t moderate such comments, they could be sued for facilitating hate speech. Similar liability concerns were common a decade ago in the private sector, mainly in the media industry, as newspaper and magazine publishers struggled with whether to add blogs, reader comments, and forums on their websites. Those issues have largely been sorted out.

Fortunately, while the public sector may be a few years behind in sorting out these issues, it appears to be catching up fast. In the past year, 24 federal agencies, and many city and state governments, have used IdeaScale and similar apps to create open forums for sourcing ideas from the public. The website of the New York State Senate, a model of open government, now hosts blogs for every senator, including public comments, and allows the public to post comments on bills. The White House also recently published new guidelines for federal employees on how to use social media to engage the public.

Helping Communities Help Themselves
Just like social media is reshaping whole industries by slashing the transaction costs of engagement, it holds tremendous potential to reshape government — or more importantly, the relationship between citizens and government. There was much talk at the Open Gov West conference about how governments at all levels can use social media and online communities to engage citizens in dialogue, to leverage their knowledge, skills, passions, and willingness to volunteer their time and energy to solve public problems and improve their communities.

But as Doug Schuler, of the Public Sphere Project, argued, “We shouldn’t be talking about how government can leverage citizens. We should be talking about how citizens can leverage the government.” After all, the government is there to serve the people, not the other way around, right?

Yes, and to that end the government should be a vehicle for helping people help themselves — not just as individuals, but as communities, providing the social space for civic spirit to grow. I believe that putting tools in the hands of citizens to self-organize and build community — through the government website — is one powerful way to do that. Vibrant civic life requires infrastructure. I hope that one day it’s considered as normal, and vital, for city governments to provide such community infrastructure online as it is to build and maintain parks and town squares offline.

Written by leifutne

April 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm