The inaugural Gov 2.0 summit starts today, and hundreds are meeting to discuss the idea of making government work as a "platform" and the goal of increasing civic engagement through technology. Contrary to what might be assumed, this vision -- promoted by event organizer and tech mogul Tim O'Reilly -- goes beyond politicians' use and abuse of Twitter. Rather, it's about tools like data.gov and recovery.gov that allow citizens to better understand and interact with government.
The Gov 2.0 Expo, held yesterday, showcased a number of these types of projects: crowdsourcing is making federal court documents more freely available, safety data is being made accessible to mobile devices, rescue efforts are becoming better coordinated through web-based applications. Definitely a lot of forward-looking stuff with immediate, tangible benefits -- no surprise that there was a lot of optimistic and enthusiastic talk at the reception that followed. But one of the most promising and buzzed-about models actually demonstrated pretty clearly the limitations of Gov 2.0 and its present ability to work as a platform.
Responding to California's financial crisis, the city of Santa Cruz has set up a website that allows its residents to offer input on how the municipal budget should be spent, using Digg-style functionality. Residents can criticize wasteful programs or praise valuable ones, and others can then vote on the propositions to show their support.
Some of the suggestions are relatively progressive. For example, one person proposed sliding-scale pay cuts for city employees in lieu of layoffs, where the highest paid workers would see their salaries slimmed by 15 percent and the lowest paid ones would only see their paychecks reduced by only 5 percent in comparison. Others, however, are substantially less so and would hurt some of Santa Cruz's most vulnerable citizens. For example, one of the more popular suggestions is to convert a historic downtown building into a "revenue generating machine" by kicking out its low-income residents:
[I]nstead of run-down affordable apartments, utilize redevelopment funds to convert the Palomar to a luxury hotel/condo project that would generate hotel tax revenue, and replace low income individuals with tourists with disposable incomes to spend in downtown shops and restaurants.
I have to wonder if there's some sort of selection bias that's making this proposal more popular than something like, "charge higher property taxes for non-owner occupied property." While the debate in the comment section is largely thoughtful and civil, most of the more personal defenses of proposals come in response to policy that would hurt high or middle-income residents. Could it be that many of the people most likely to be affected by the suggestions on this site aren't even participating in the conversation? Given that 1 in 5 American homes lack any sort of Internet access, according to Pew, it seems pretty likely that a good chunk of the population invested in these decisions might be digitally disenfranchised if the opinions put forth on this website have real influence on what sort of laws are passed. As it stands, the program appears to simply replicate a number of the problems that already plague California's larger legislative process, what with its tendency toward "ballot-box budgeting" -- and which primarily benefited the wealthy, neglected the poor in many ways, and got the state into trouble in the first place. If Gov 2.0 means that government is to operate as a platform, good faith efforts have to be made in making sure that platform is available to all, and that means closing the Internet divide.