Harriet Tubman on the left and her family including her husband and adopted daughter.
When talking about “government inefficiency” I am always brought back to my college control theory classes. In control theory you learn that for a system to be stable, you must to decrease performance. Likewise if you want a performance system, you have to narrow the conditions in which it will be stable (race car needs dedicated track). Government is intended to be more stable so if the control theory model fits, government is not going to be as efficient but it is also a lot less likely to fail when disturbances vary or increase.
h/t Jon Henke
The Nation’s First Electoral Map via Mapping the Nation
The map is particularly interesting given that it does not simply identify the returns at the state level, but involves much more finely grained data. Moreover it not only marks the victory of the Republican or Democratic (or Greenback) Party, but also measures the strength of that victory.
Campaign Finance Geekery
As part of our campaign finance reporting, mapping out connections between 501c4s.
Yes, there is a Tumblr called nprwhiteboards.
I’m obsessed with the design principles Deena Rosen wrote in her capacity as UX director for Opower. The principles describe how Deena uses design and behavior science to build tools that encourage people to make choices that reduce their impact on the environment.
Civic Innovation needs to learn from these kinds of efforts and adopt behavioral science based practices. The internet and most of the consumer facing technology industry is optimized for entertainment and commerce. People seek out and want to engage with products that supply a need or entertain them in some fashion. Conversely, it’s not actually a rational behavior to engage in civic activity. The likelihood that one person’s actions will change the outcome of a governmental decision is so small, it might as well be zero.
Our users have busy lives. The kids need to be picked up from day care. Someone needs to get the car’s oil changed. Great Aunt Gertrude is back in the hospital, and it would be nice to go visit her. If a user’s question to her representative or comment on a budgeting plan is very unlikely to impact the outcome, why would she take the time to ask the question or submit the comment?
Be honest, if civic innovation wasn’t your profession, how engaged would you be in the day-to-day activities of your local government?
In the collective, we are all better off if we participate in our communities and provide oversight and feedback to those who represent us. The challenge of relevancy is one Deena faces at Opower as well. Individually, turning down my thermostat won’t reduce the damage caused by global climate change, but collectively a reduction in the amount of energy we use to heat our houses can make a big difference.
At Opower, Deena’s team uses normative comparison, social proof, loss language, defaults, and user commitment to encourage user behavior that’s good for us as a community. The Civic Engagement community could do this as well! There are well-known tactics we could adopt to encourage users to do the right thing.
Except, there’s a big problem. The Civic Innovation ecosystem doesn’t actually agree on the desired outcomes. We don’t agree on the metrics for success. Are we trying to increase the amount of interaction between residents and their elected representatives? Are we trying to increase the flexibility of opinions tolerated by the electorate? Are we trying to maximize the amount of information users consume before they form an opinion and take an action?
Without agreement on these metrics, we’ll be blocked from using the kinds of techniques that will help us overcome the problems associated with getting users to care about civic issues in the collective. It’s time to get real about forming a theory of change.
Last night, I got a chance to hang out with Christina Hollenback, an amazingly talented community organizer in New York. A year ago she left her job in DC as the director of the Generational Alliance and moved to Harlem where she’s focused on organizing at the hyper-local, block level. For example, she’s currently focused on helping musicians organize CSA type projects that allow the neighborhood to support the artists in their area by paying in advance for musical performances and recordings.
My gut tells me that the work she’s doing in Harlem is fantastically important and more impactful than all of her electoral and issue organizing, the many meetings she attended in DC, and the events she planned for Congressman and Senators. By creating ways for community members to come together and support each other, she’s building the social fabric upon which people fall back when hard times hit. She’s also building the kinds of relationships between people who have different socio-economic and political backgrounds that allow us to better understand each other. I would hypothesize that her work is the what we need if we want to see a depolarized government. But I have no way to prove that.
What community metrics are correlated with a healthy government? Does the strength of a community’s social fabric, its interconnectedness, impact the effectiveness of the decision making bodies that set policy for that community?
The crisis response ecosystem looks to resilience as a measurement of whether a community can bounce back from a disaster. Practitioners and researchers in this field recognize that disaster resilient communities use personal and community strengths to recover from calamity and have strong social networks. They spend a lot of time looking at the connection between the strength of the social fabric and better outcomes for individuals post-disaster. One of the core elements of social capital - trust- is seen as vital to preparedness efforts.
I think in terms of data— and the different kinds and qualities of connections between residents is the base layer of all civic innovation. These shifting currents of trust influence and underpin all the public and charitable work in a place flowing from the doorstep all the way up to the Federal government. This particular dataset is particularly hard to collect and validate. After spending time with Christina, I’m even more sure that the tools we build to make collaborative decisions or change the way we govern ourselves need to be designed with a firm understanding and data-driven approach to the kind of offline community strength Christina builds. We need to pay attention to civic resilience and start to effectively measure what it takes to increase it.
Over the weekend, Steve Johnson wrote an article that continued the discussion of the political belief systems dominating Silicon Valley and what that does and doesn’t mean for the rest of the world.
"Yes, people who work in the tech sector today (particularly around the web and social media) believe in the power of decentralized systems and less hierarchical forms of organization. But that does not mean they are greed-is-good market fundamentalists."
Recently, the chattering class has turned it’s attention to Silicon Valley’s efforts to impact the political and civic worlds in which it exists. As someone who works at a company founded in Silicon Valley, on a team which is working to improve civic discourse, I find the conversation absolutely fascinating.
I’ve compiled a list of the pieces I find most interesting.
"The industry’s splendid isolation inspires cognitive dissonance, for it’s an article of faith in Silicon Valley that the technology industry represents something more utopian, and democratic, than mere special-interest groups."
Catherine Bracy wrote about the issue months ago, and I think she has a better handle on the issues involved. She explores “the tension between Silicon Valley’s impact on democracy and its utter lack of interest in or understanding of the institutions and systems of government its companies do business in.”
Today, the New York Times printed a piece, Lessons for Silicon Valley from Capitol Hill.
In a business context this means it is foolhardy to believe that your company will maintain a superior position vis a vis your competitors, because you are “excellent” (e.g. competent, efficient, smart) at doing what you do. There are a lot of smart people in the world. If you make enough money off being excellent, other smart, competent people will come along and copy what you are doing, and whoops, there goes your advantage."