The inspiration for this article comes from two sources. One is Clay Shirky’s Ted Talk on how the Internet will one day transform government.

The other is a story of a friend who built a civic movement. It is more than the story of a man and the way he sees the world. This is also about you and me and the way we can and should influence the world around us.

Basilio lived next to a street with serious problems of accessibility. A two-way car lane and a narrow sidewalk meant that people walking by had to stand against the wall to avoid being run over.

Making matters worse, this street is one of the main pathways to access one of Lisbon’s most central train stations.

He brought to the attention of the relevant stakeholders. The city hall and REFER, the company in charge of the train station. Not seeing any result he took it upon himself to pressure them into action. He built Entrada Norte – a civic movement and created a social media campaign across every channel he could manage: Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook and YouTube.

It took Basilio two years, the support of neighbors and friends and a number of opportunities to speak to newspapers and TV. Eventually, the street did change, turning into a one-way car lane, with a small fence being put in place to protect pedestrians a sidewalk and extra measures to ensure visibility at night.

How the government failed and Entrada Norte won

Here we are talking about every aspect of Government, from the local and regional bodies to the systems in charge of state affairs. The Entrada Norte civic movement was acting a local level and literally had to fight to get its voice heard. And has it turned out, the solution was actually quite simple to carry out.

  1. The Civic Movement Process according to Entrada Norte
  2. Analysis and research
  3. Contact stakeholders
  4. Media: Newspapers and TV
  5. Local actions (demonstrations)
  6. Meetings with interested parties
  7. Repeat

The reason it took Basilio two years to achieve this victory is a failure in communication between government and the public at a local level, where ironically communication is easier to manage. The social media effort put in place was not taken into account by any government entity and served more as a way to show the relevance and concern of the people towards the problem and thus gain attention by the media and sequentially decision makers, than to alert the government directly.

On a scenario of ideal relationship management by any of the stakeholders, the Entrada Norte movement would have succeeded in half the time or less, and either city hall or REFER would be seen as a true communicative organization for doing so. What could have been a mutual victory turned out to be a defeat due to outdated procedures and lack of awareness towards social media.

Towards a connected government

The concept of Democracy began as an act of participation in public affairs. In ancient Greece, everyone who held the title of citizen could vote and make his voice heard. This model of participatory democracy eventually had to change into the representative democracy we know today. With the rise of the Web and the possibility to adopt new ways to work and collaborate we can explore a new approach to government.

A Connected Government could then be described as an entity that works as an enabler, coordinating efforts and setting priorities of other stakeholders. In its current state, Portuguese Government is more of a controlling entity, it is hierarchical and inefficient to solve problems of a small street.

Act as a network and change the way we work

The hardest change towards a connected government is structural change, it needs to be less hierarchical and have flexible procedures. That is a deep change that if we discussed would extend this article much further.

On a more practical perspective, there are a number of things that a Connected Government needs: – Tools to communicate – Free and open access to information – Research and analysis of big data – Bounty hunters – Geeks

Tools to communicate

As was said already, Social Media and internal communication tools are essential. From Twitter to blogs, Facebook and Wikis. And these tools need to work both ways and not just as a means for broadcasting information.

Free and open access to information

Despite today’s technology governments sometimes still fail to provide the Public with information in a format that is open: can be easily read in every platform, worked upon and even searched or shared as the user sees fit.

In Portugal, a group launched Demo.Cratica.org : a website that gathers and shares information about elected politicians, assembly minutes and other data they felt the government was failing to provide in an open format.

Research and analysis of big data

Simply put, gathering information is expensive and takes time. It is however possible to let citizens contribute with information via their mobile phones, reporting problems and alerting about opportunities and thus allow government bodies to focus on curating and making that information actionable.

GeoDevolutas for example is an independent website where users can login and register vacant housing or buildings that are in ruins.

Bounty Hunters

Government is not the single entity in the public sector, and yet, when faced with a problem to solve it opts to create a research or workgroup to find solutions.

Other organizations sometimes issue a Bounty for solutions of a problem or new projects. Public bounties could be answered by Universities, individuals, private companies or any other stakeholder thus cutting down costs and allowing for a faster process of research.

Geeks

Not everything in an organization can be planned or predicted and communication teams are sometimes faced with challenges in the spur of the moment.

It is then important to have geeks on the team, people who are not only prone to technology but whose desire for an open government will drive them to build quick solutions to communicate in a time of crisis or to serve as a quick fix until a more permanent solution can be found.

Going Further

There are a number of free and open source tools that can help build a Connected Government (or organization), as well as examples of practical projects who only need critical mass to make a difference. I gathered as much as I could in a list of links.

The Slides from BledCom 2013 are also available on slideshare:

BledCom 2013: Towards a connected government from Bruno Amaral

It is your turn, please leave your comment or any questions.

Update: The panel discussion gathered in storify.