By TOM HONIG
If you limit yourself to traditional media, you might not know this:
"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."
That's the first paragraph of a report by The New America Foundation called "Here Us Now?" and it details an entirely new, technology-driven approach to open government. And yes -- Santa Cruz is in on the revolution.
This is significant technology. It increases the ability for the average citizen to engage -- without the filter of interest groups. Here'es how the report describes the new tools:
"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."
What does that look like for Santa Cruz? First, the Police Department has introduced an iPhone App that will issue warnings to folks in the event of an emergency.
The city also has engaged in a project to increase citizen participation in its budgeting process. The report features these words from Peter Koht of the city's Redevelopment Agency:
"The city, short of money, relied upon existing resources and staff, as well as community volunteers, to devise a technology project that would tell its story and elicit community input. Via a hosted feedback forum on the Internet, the city launched a website that provided background and contextual information on the budget problem, includ ing issue primers, financial documents and a blog with updates on state budget activities. Citizens were invited to register on the site with their email address, educate themselves on the fiscal challenges, and propose solutions for raising revenues or cutting costs. To reduce time spent on outlier responses, users were required to keep the conversation focused on specific topics. Online suggestions generated a response from the city and were voted on by other users. The top ten suggestions were used by the city to guide budget strategies."
Koht also reported more and better feedback than the traditional route -- town meetings and newspaper articles.
The city also has on the drawing board a program of particular interest to business. Thanks to the city's participation in a fellowship from a group called "Code for America," new technology will make it possible for a business to use a streamlined "one-stop" online application process for businesses to make various applications that previously have been overly complex. By the way, Santa Cruz was the only city of its size to win the fellowship.
This kind of technology is in its infancy. It's generally known as "Government 2.0" and it will soon be just one more path for the citizenry to engage with local government.
Santa Cruz is hardly the only local jurisdiction that is using technology to open up government.
But in an era when suspicion of government is high, new technology is one way of closing the divide. The report is well worth a read.