Using Social Apps To Build a Better Government

Jennifer Pahlka is a rarity in America these days. She actually believes in government. Jennifer Pahlka does not necessarily believe in politics, mind you. But, she sees a distinct difference between ...
Using Social Apps To Build a Better Government
Written by Mike Tuttle
  • Jennifer Pahlka is a rarity in America these days. She actually believes in government. Jennifer Pahlka does not necessarily believe in politics, mind you. But, she sees a distinct difference between the two.

    When you strip away all your feelings about politics and the line at the DMV and all those things that we’re really mad about, government is, at its core… what we do together that we can’t do alone. Now, a lot of people have given up on government. And, if you are one of those people, I would ask that you reconsider. Because things are changing. Politics is not changing. Government is changing. And, because government ultimately derives its power from us – remember “We The People”? – how we think about it is going to affect how that change happens.

    What is Pahlka all about? What has she seen that has made her so optimistic about government?

    Jennifer Pahlka is the founder of Code For America. This organization pairs talented web and software professionals with local US city governments. Their aim is to “reboot” government, not through political processes, but through stimulating citizenship.

    Let’s take a moment with that term, “reboot”. It gets used a lot, nowadays. And, it is curious that its use stems from something that no one really likes doing – having to reboot your computer when things just aren’t working well anymore. But, once we actually take the time to shut everything down and restart, it’s amazing how much better everything performs.

    We’ve seen movie franchises reboot. Take, for example, Star Trek. The original Star Trek series had run its course on television and in movies. Some think it ran way further than it should have. Same for The Next Generation material. But, the Star Trek universe is a rich place for story-telling. So, JJ Abrams “rebooted” the whole thing from the beginning, including Christopher Pike, red-uniformed away team members, and an unique timeline skew that opens up whole new possibilities. There is a satisfaction for this fan in knowing that there are certain familiar characteristics that we can look forward to (McCoy argues with Spock; Kirk rushes headlong into action; Scotty pulls off miracles), but now it gets to be fresh.

    Jennifer Pahlka believes that we can do that with government. Not necessarily politics, that dirty old sidekick of government. But, with the business of governing itself. The business of doing together what we can’t do alone. And, to that end, she is spearheading a movement to combine the best of the public and private sectors.

    She sends app developers to work with local governments to build tools that help people get things done in their communities. The idea is to allow young, fresh minds who know how to build solutions to get in where there is normally red tape and civic inertia. These people spend a fraction of the time developing apps that help citizens interact with each other to get things done that normally would depend on local tax-paid services to do. They work from the basis of citizenship – remembering that communities are about people helping each other. All they need are the tools to help them know what needs doing.

    Here’s an example of what Code For America does:

    We had a team of fellows in Boston last year through the Code for America program. They were there in February, and it snowed a lot in February last year. And they noticed that the city never gets to digging out these fire hydrants. But one fellow in particular, a guy named Erik Michaels-Ober,noticed something else, and that’s that citizens are shoveling out sidewalks right in front of these things. So he did what any good developer would do, he wrote an app.

    It’s a cute little app where you can adopt a fire hydrant. So you agree to dig it out when it snows. If you do, you get to name it, and he called the first one Al. And if you don’t, someone can steal it from you. So it’s got cute little game dynamics on it. This is a modest little app. It’s probably the smallest of the 21 apps that the fellows wrote last year. But it’s doing something that no other government technology does. It’s spreading virally.

    There’s a guy in the I.T. department of the City of Honolulu who saw this app and realized that he could use it, not for snow, but to get citizens to adopt tsunami sirens. It’s very important that these tsunami sirens work, but people steal the batteries out of them. So he’s getting citizens to check on them. And then Seattle decided to use it to get citizens to clear out clogged storm drains. And Chicago just rolled it out to get people to sign up to shovel sidewalks when it snows. So we now know of nine cities that are planning to use this. And this has spread just frictionlessly, organically, naturally.

    It’s the best of all political worlds. It cuts through governmental red tape and lowers costs, which Conservatives would love. But, it works with collective government to do that, which Progressives would love. But, it represents an increasing independence from reliance on tax-paid services, which Libertarians would love. It is apolitical. And it is cutting-edge. But, it is simple. And, it spreads.

    Pahlka stopped by a TED Conference to outline her mission and ideas. The video is below, but here are a few highlight quotes:

    “We say that word [bureaucracy] with such contempt. But it’s that contempt that keeps this thing that we own and we pay for as something that’s working against us.”

    “A neighbor is a far better and cheaper alternative to government services.”

    “Government is like a vast ocean and politics is the six-inch layer on top.”

    “[The Internet generation is] not fighting that battle about who gets to speak; they all get to speak.”

    “We’re not going to fix government until we fix citizenship.”

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