Citizens wield power through technology
- By Eric Kulisch
- Oct 02, 2000
Community organizations in several cities are looking at innovative ways
to improve municipal services through technology-driven citizen involvement.
The idea is to harness technology to empower individuals and grass-roots
civic organizations to play an active role in managing their neighborhoods.
In Hartford, Conn., the not-for-profit Connecticut Policy and Economic
Council (CPEC) outfitted high school students with handheld computers, custom-designed
software and digital cameras, and sent them to city parks to document areas
that needed maintenance. The City Scan project results will be posted on
a Web site this fall, and CPEC officials plan to present their findings
to city officials to develop a feedback process for future maintenance improvements.
In York, Pa., the nonprofit South George Street Community Partnership
is arming volunteers with Palm Pilots loaded with a series of surveys to
gauge everything from building conditions to land-use data to the attitudes
of residents. The results of the surveys — developed by the Enterprise Foundation,
a national, nonprofit housing and community development organization — can
be downloaded into larger databases.
Realizing that a top-down problem-solving approach has contributed to
citizen apathy and cynicism, many philanthropic, social research, public
policy and grass-roots civic organizations, as well as municipalities, are
pushing to improve government accountability by allowing communities to
set priorities and monitor services.
Although many local, state and federal agencies are taking a page from
the private sector and measuring the effectiveness of their services, activists
say these performance-based evaluations often are driven by internal, bureaucratic
criteria, which may not translate into improvements citizens care about.
Better spreadsheet software for city workers does not mean much to residents
if the trash is not picked up regularly, they say.
Instead, community activists use focus groups and questionnaires to
develop measures by which to judge progress.
"In the past, we worked with city agencies to get their sense of what
measures to use," said Barbara Cohn, vice president of the Fund for the
City of New York and director of the fund's Center on Municipal Government
Performance. "And this time, we wanted to start with the public."
The Fund for the City of New York, launched by the Ford Foundation in
1968 to improve the quality of life and the functioning of government and
nonprofit organizations, has pioneered community-based performance evaluation
In 1998, it launched Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking
(ComNET) by providing easily operated handheld computers to neighborhood
volunteers so that they could better rate the outcome of service delivery
in New York. ComNET now uses digital cameras to document street-level environmental
conditions such as potholes, abandoned vehicles and faulty fire hydrants.
The observations can be quickly sent in standardized form to city agencies
and neighborhood groups. Community representatives perform follow-up assessments
to track agency responses and identify any new problems.
Some organizations approach the Fund for the City of New York for mentoring
in this area, while others enlist the financial support of the philanthropic
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. For example:
* CPEC received $435,000 for City Scan.
* The Worcester Municipal Research Bureau, a nonprofit, independent
public policy research organization, is petitioning for a grant to implement
its data-collection plan, which will incorporate handheld computers, in
Worcester, Mass., according to Roberta Schaefer, the bureau's executive
* The Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research organization
in Washington, D.C., is conducting preliminary talks about its interest
in starting a performance assessment program in the nation's capital, said
Mary Kopczynski, an Urban Institute research associate.
* The Santa Barbara Foundation is in preliminary talks regarding computerized
neighborhood environmental tracking in Santa Barbara County, Calif., said
Barbara Brown, a foundation official.
City Scan, and projects like it, helps citizens "reshape their communities
and, to some extent, bring their skills as consumers into democracy and
local government decision-making," said Mike Meotti, CPEC president.
Meotti envisions technology breaking down the communications barriers
between citizens and municipal officials. It's possible, for instance, that
with a City Scan Web site residents could post information about a new pothole.
A geographic database would show the pothole on a map, and an e-mail would
automatically go to an appropriate official, who could respond electronically
about progress to correct the problem.
And better information can lead to better planning, said Moustafa Mourad,
director of the Enterprise Foundation's Planning Design and Development
Department. He is quoted in "Community Connections: Preserving Local Values
in the Information Age," a report by the Commerce Department's National
Telecommunications and Information Administration.
"The biggest hurdle in any planning or community development effort
is the enormous time lag between when information is collected and when
it is analyzed," Mourad said in the report. "By using standardized forms
and putting them on Palm Pilots, we have reduced the time lag to zero."
Next year, City Scan will expand to Stamford, Conn., where Meotti said
city officials are interested in employing performance-based evaluations
on an on-going basis. "Once you start doing this, you should never stop,"