Shining a light on local government

October 28th, 2010 by

Worker repairing streetlight, 1950 by Seattle Municipal Archives @ FlickrRecently, after long days at work, I find myself cursing the Government.

It’s not that I’m an anarchist, or because I am particularly upset about taxes or government policy. What annoys me is the streetlight outside my house.

Last month, after a brief, flickering illness, it died. Without its guiding light, fitting my key into the door to my apartment building has become an annoying game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

To be fair, the issue is probably not incompetence on the part of the Government, but rather ignorance of my particular problem. I suspect my local council is as in the dark about it metaphorically as I am literally. If I could only be bothered ringing them to make them aware of the broken lamp, I’m sure it would be eventually fixed.

Like all citizens in fully developed democracies, I am fortunate to have the freedom to make demands of the government – even if I don’t get around to actually making them. In this case, as soon as I manage to unlock the door my annoyance subsides rapidly, and finding the right person to contact and calling them seems like far too much hassle.

Everything is illuminated
Happily, such annoyances may soon be a thing of the past. New methods of sharing information and allocating tasks – such as crowdsourcing – mean that difficult or time consuming jobs can be broken into bite sized microtasks. Numerous organizations are now using such platforms, together with the internet, to facilitate user-friendly and effective interaction between citizens and their governments.

A good example is Fixmystreet, run by mySociety in the UK. Now in England, when a pothole makes you spill your coffee all over yourself, rather than writing a letter to your local MP, you simply log the problem on an online map. It is then automatically forwarded to the appropriate government employee.

Such websites not only allow the public to easily notify the government of issues, the publicity they generate also pressures bureaucrats to resolve the issues quickly. At the time of writing 1,878 problems logged on Fixmystreet had been fixed in the last month alone.

Another example is Project Fosbury. Also run by mySociety, it is a wider project intent on bringing people together to solve everyday problems like those dealt to by Fixmystreet.

Project Fosbury is a modular platform that breaks down complicated civic tasks into pieces which can then be allocated to one or more people. Each task is completed within a joined up infrastructure and is designed to be easy and satisfying for someone who’s never engaged politically before. Driving the success are incentive structures, peer pressure, and a sense of fun.

The possible applications for this sort of transparent interaction between citizens and their governments are widespread and are increasing all the time. I’m not suggesting that such developments will suddenly make governments perfect, but they will certainly improve it, by increasing transparency, efficiency and accountability. By encouraging interaction between government and citizens they are bringing government out of the dark ages. Such interaction, I hope, may be the key to solving many of life’s little annoyances.