Understanding the potential role of social media such as blogs, twitter, Facebook, You Tube, and all the rest in local government begins with better understanding the democratic source of our mission of community service. The council-manager form of local government arose a century ago in response to the "shame of the cities" — the crisis of local government corruption and gross inefficiency.
Understanding what business we are in today is vital. It drives the choices we make and the tools we use. Railroads squandered their dominance in transportation because they defined their business as railroading. They shunned expansion into trucking, airlines, and airfreight. While they were loyal to one mode of transportation, their customers were not. Similarly, newspapers are in crisis because they defined their trade as the newspaper industry. Today's readers don't wait for timely news to arrive in their driveways. They have digital access on their computers and hand-held phones. Guess where advertisers are going?
Most local governments suffer similar myopia. Many managers define our core mission as delivering services. But that overlooks the history of why local governments deliver those services. We deliver police services in the way that we do because Sir Robert Peel invented that model in response to the public safety challenges of industrializing London.
We deliver library services because Ben Franklin invented that model in response to the need for working people in Philadelphia to pursue education and self-improvement. Governments didn't arise to provide services; services arose from "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Our core mission is not to provide traditional services, but to meet today's community needs. To do this, we can learn more from the entrepreneurial risk-taking of Peel and Franklin than from public management textbooks.
We face these new dangers and opportunities:
• Transitioning from unsustainable consumption to living in sustainable balance with planetary resources.
• Overcoming an economic crisis that is slashing our capacity to maintain traditional services and meet growing community needs.
• Embracing growing diversity while dealing with increasing fragmentation marked by divergent expectations about the role of local government.
During a similar period of historic upheaval, the young Karl Marx wrote that "all that is solid melts into air."
Of course, it's possible to underestimate the emerging crisis from the perspective of local government in many American towns and suburbs. The local voting population seems stable, though declining in numbers. The "usual suspects" still populate the sparse audiences at council and commission meetings. The budget is horrendous, but we've seen these cycles before.
In reality, this overhang is typical of the lag between action and reaction, the inertia Thomas Jefferson identified when he wrote, "Mankind are more inclined to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
In California, we're confounded by the seemingly endless crisis in political leadership that is squandering our state's credit rating and capacity to deliver vital services. Members of our political class resemble cartoon characters who dash off a cliff, then momentarily hang in the air before abruptly plunging. As the economist Herb Stein wryly observed, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."
Global Communication Tools
In the current tough times, we all pay lip service to civic engagement and we all pursue it, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. But if we want to avoid plunging into the vortex like the state of California (and Vallejo, California, its bankrupt local counterpart), we will need to reassert and reinvent government of the people, by the people, and for the people in our communities.
The textbook model puts the elected governing board squarely between us and the public. Elected officials interpret the will of the people. They're accountable to the public. We report to those who have been elected. But in the modern world, professional staff cannot hide behind that insulation. We cling to the old paradigm because we lack a better one.
That's where the real significance of social media comes into focus. These aren't just toys, gizmos, or youthful fads. Social media are powerful global communication tools we can deploy to help rejuvenate civic engagement.
The Obama presidential campaign lifted the curtain on this potential. "Nothing can stand in the way of millions of people calling for change," he asserted at a time when conventional political wisdom doubted his path to the White House. MyBarackObama.com wasn't his only advantage, but he deployed it with stunning effectiveness to raise colossal sums from small donors, pinpoint volunteer efforts in 50 states to the exact places of maximum leverage, and carry his campaign through storms that would have capsized a conventional campaign.
It remains to be seen how this translates into governance at the federal level. But it has direct application to local democracy. Crowd sourcing is a new buzzword spawned by social media. It recognizes that useful ideas aren't confined to positional leaders or experts. Wikipedia is a powerful success story, showing how millions of contributors can build a world-class institution, crushing every hierarchical rival. "Wikigovernment" is not going to suddenly usher in rankless democratic nirvana, but it's closer to the ideal of government of the people, by the people, and for the people than a typical local government organization chart.
"To govern is to choose," John Kennedy famously said. Choices must be made, and citizens will increasingly insist on participating in those decisions. As citizens everywhere balk at the cost of government, we can't hunker down and wait for a recovery to rescue us. Like carmakers suddenly confronted by acres of unsold cars, we are arriving at the limits of the "we design ‘em, you buy ‘em" mentality.
A crowd-sourcing approach to local government resembles a barn raising more than a vending machine as a model for serving the community. Instead of elected leaders exclusively deciding the services to be offered and setting the (tax) price of the government vending machine, a barn raising tackles shared challenges through what former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith calls "government by network."
Citizen groups, individual volunteers, activists, nonprofits, other public agencies, businesses, and ad hoc coalitions contribute to the designing, delivering, and funding of public services. The media compatible with this model are not the newspapers such as — for example — the local newspaper that reports yesterday's council meeting. The new media are the instant Facebook postings, tweets, and YouTube clips that keep our shifting body politic in touch.
The Dark Side
It's not hard to conjure up the dark side of all this. Web presence is often cloaked in anonymity. This isn't new in political discourse; the Founders engaged in anonymous pamphleteering. But the Web can harbor vitriol that wasn't tolerated in the traditional press (at least until recently).
The Web also tends to segregate people. One study concluded that 96 percent of cyber readers follow only the blogs they agree with. This self-selection of information bypasses editors trained in assessing the credibility of information. Opinion is routinely passed off as fact.
But it isn't surprising that the cutting edge of digital communication is full of both danger and promise, nor should it keep us from using these new media in our 2,500-year quest for self-government. The atomization generated by a zillion websites also breeds a hunger for the community of shared experience. Both the election of Barack Obama and the death of Michael Jackson tapped into that yearning.
We can foster that yearning by deploying these exciting new tools in the service of building community. Yes, it's risky to be a pioneer, but in a rapidly changing world, it's even riskier to be left behind.
This is part two of a two-part series. A slightly different version of this article appeared in Public Management, the magazine of the International City/County Management Association; icma.org/pm.
Rick Cole is city manager of Ventura, California, and this year's recipient of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California's Excellence in Government Award. He can be reached at RCole@ci.ventura.ca.us