Running head: The 800 lb gorilla question: What do we want from local government?

The past month has shown planet Earth just what an emergent, self-organizing society can look like.  The people in Egypt decided that the governmental operating system they have had for more than a generation didn’t work anymore.  They decided to “uninstall” that system.  It isn’t clear, yet, what new system will be installed to replace that. This all reminds me of when I finally gave up on MS-DOS and migrated to a Windows platform.  Remember how that felt?

My point here, is that a similar uninstall and system migration is called for in local government. This isn’t necessarily true at the national level—although there are some who advocate for that (that’s a whole other blog).  No, what I see is a speed up of the de-evolution of centralized power and provision of services, down to the community level. And that’s what I want to talk about.  What could that localized community governance look like?

First, we have to realize that the human-computer environment is a platform of connections that speeds up this process.  The FAX was instrumental in the disintegration of the old Soviet regime and we have seen Twitter and Facebook power along events in the Middle East.  So how do we leverage the “iCitizen” and “eGovernment” movements that have already begun?  Did you know what a “meetup” was five years ago?  What will things look like at the ground level in five more years?  What political power will be usurped when Facebook meets YouTube?

I see three things:

  • Smaller, better local government
  • Co-production of services
  • Community-based government

Smaller, better government.  At some point in growth, administrative systems become sub-optimal.  My friend, Duane Elgin describes this as a limit to large organizational systems.  I think we have reached that point of sub-optimization at the State and local levels.  We spend more energy on coordinating things, than getting things done.  If you don’t believe me, go down to City Hall and ask for an explanation of a policy.  Cut it down by 35% to start.  Start giving people the tools to do things for themselves, don’t do it for them.

Co-production of services. We need governance systems, which teach people how to do things like energy conservation, environmental protection, learning, job training and yes, preventive health care.  People AND government working together. Citizens control the quality and level of service.  The protesters in Egypt actually re-built the streets in Tahrir Square after the “uninstall.”  They didn’t wait for the street maintenance department to schedule a capital improvement project.

Community based government.  Frankly, a representative form of governance has become outmoded.  Why can’t citizens dial in to a council meeting and ask question, even vote?  Really, there is no longer a technical barrier—it is purely political.  Want to reduce government overhead?  Start by getting rid of 50% of elected officials and replace them with on-line discussion groups and webcasts.  We have figured out how to do this in education and health care.  Why not governance?

OK, this blog turned somewhat into a rant.  I am being deliberately provocative—some would say heretical.  But, you know that’s how change starts.  I hope this is an ignition point and we can really dig deep into these issues (especially the three singled out here).

Thanks to Rebecca for having the guts to post this.  She is not responsible for the voices in my head.

Tagged: \ \

Topics in Blog