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Online tools fuel local government vitality

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Google is a giant. It is a giant success, giant company, and a giant in its industry.

Did you know, though, that Gmail, one of the most popular email platforms on the Internet, was thought up, tested, and proposed during what is referred to as “dabble time”? Google encourages its employees to use 20 percent of their time to work on personal projects and ideas with the intention of it resulting in ways to improve Google’s offerings to its users.

Imagine if that’s how our government worked.

As co-founder and CEO of Citizinvestor, a leading provider of civic engagement and crowdfunding tools for local government, I know the difference that such policies can make. Whether it’s raising money from 88 residents to expand a summer program for at-risk youth in Gainesville, or organizing a park cleanup of more than 100 people in the formerly bankrupt town of Central Falls, R.I., I have seen firsthand the change that can be made when people are able to invest in their community.

I also have the pleasure of being on Tampa’s Citizen Advisory Budget Committee (CABC). The panel is composed of seven members (each appointed by a council member) tasked with reviewing the budget, meeting with department heads and providing feedback and recommendations to City Council. The CABC is a great opportunity for the council to hear from non-elected residents and has resulted, in my opinion, in many positive actions for the city.

But what if instead of seven voices, the council and mayor could hear from 70, or 700, or the whole populace?

Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the city of Tampa already have taken positive steps in this direction with the InVision Tampa project. The InVision program has sought ideas from the public in many ways, including in-person and via the online tool youinvisiontampa.com. The city and county also have hosted hack-a-thons with data sets provided to residents.

The results were eye-opening, offering new access to Tampa and Hillsborough residents’ ideas and visions for the city. Such projects provide important beginnings to obtain more information and opinions from the community.

However, there’s still something to be desired with civic engagement in our city.

One of the clearest measurements of a community’s involvement in its government and leadership is voter turnout. By that standard, Tampa is failing: In the 2015 citywide election held this past month, only 12.29 percent of the eligible 200,000 voters cast a ballot.

What our local government can, and should do, is to take the next step to foster engagement and harness the collective skills, ideas and excitement of its citizenry. That can be achieved by implementing three common-sense programs for bolstering civic engagement.

1) Tampa and Hillsborough County should seek out and implement the wide array of online engagement tools used by cities across the country.

From ideation platforms such as invisiontampa.com to reporting tools such as SeeClickFix, recently implemented in St. Petersburg, these tools increase engagement and involve the citizenry in the governing process.

2) Create and implement open data standards giving access to the information individuals needed to build new civic tools.

By opening data into organized and readable formats, we have seen tools ranging from crime mapping to bus tracking popping up across the country. Imagine the possibilities that could be created in our community if instead of a three-day hack-a-thon, data was made available on an ongoing basis.

3) Organize more issue-specific town halls to solicit feedback and build consensus from the community outside of regular City Council and County Commission meetings.

Although the new technological tools allow for increased civic engagement, they are only part of the process. Offline engagement must be improved by bringing issues and governance directly to the public.

4) Encourage eligible voters to be more involved, and initiate voter education campaigns online in the lead-up to city elections and broaden early/mail in voting for those elections.

When less than 13 percent of eligible voters are deciding an election, we aren’t necessarily getting a complete picture of what the community wants to see accomplished. If you were to ask someone why they didn’t vote in the March election, I would argue that most non-voters would say they didn’t know there was an election or that voting wasn’t convenient. The city should do all it can to encourage people to vote and make it easier.

As Americans living in 2015, it is seemingly impossible for us to keep up as technology changes daily. The challenge is even greater for local governments that must maneuver a bureaucracy through change on the fly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

To be effective in serving those who elected them, our leaders must be more accessible. Technology is a large part of that. Tampa and Hillsborough have an opportunity to be a cutting-edge 21st century region that learns from its residents on a daily basis. That’s an opportunity we can’t pass up.

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