Citizens wield power through technology

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

projects.

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

director.

* 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,"

he said.

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