the public space
June 13, 2012
by Ken Mayer
I am not a geek. I am a tool user.
Our ancient ancestors probably didn’t have the slightest understanding of the physics of fire or the wheel, yet they used them to make their lives better. Most people don’t know exactly how the internal combustion engine works, yet they are able to drive cars.
There’s no need to understand how to program a computer in order to use one. In my opinion, any software that requires training is simply bad software. It’s the developer’s problem, not the users. Did anybody have to teach you how to order stuff on Amazon or how to do social networking on Facebook? Probably not.
That said, I’ll confess that one of my greatest disappointments in the last decade has been the poor use of technology in the public sector. About a dozen years ago, I made a wrong turn and got out of corporate land with the naive hope that I could make a difference. I soon learned the profound meaning of the phrase, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
I’m not being cynical; it’s merely my habit of working to avoid self-deception. I characterize many years in hidebound, conservative financial services companies as my Stick-figure Period. Now, I’m in my Quixotic Period.
My frustration arises most often from resistance to using information technology as a productivity and communication tool. Seems to me, a lot of the government, education and nonprofit communities simply don’t get it.
Lest you think this is a young person’s game, I’m talking about using technology to make a difference. Our kids don’t get it, either.
The fall 2011 UCLA annual Freshman Survey showed that only 38.1% of incoming college freshmen self-identified themselves as above average in computer skills. Most of my students taking a required statistics course are great at social networking, but using a spreadsheet can be “deer in the headlights” time.
Just as users can be fixated on entertainment, organizations can be disingenuous. Witness the recent Facebook poll on its new data use policy and new statement of rights and responsibilities in response to concerns about privacy.
A measly .038% of users voted on the policy change. Facebook made no significant effort to make users aware of the vote beyond posting to its Site Governance page for a single week.
I’ve observed the same odd view of gathering input in the public sector. Town hall meetings, so called “focus groups,” public input sessions, sometimes even the results of Omaha by Design’s own Place Games are simply ways for bureaucrats to cover their – well, you know whats.
Fortunately, Omaha has a tradition of using technology to get things done, dating back to the birth of telemarketing and credit card processing. We have been characterized as America’s backroom.
Our city was an early adopter and incubator for the use of technology to gather citizen input with Pass the Potatoes, a virtual town hall event sponsored by Environment Omaha for the City of Omaha. That spawned the city-sponsored Engage Omaha at www.engageomaha.com.
What makes Engage Omaha different is its accountability. The site has the Official Response Report for Fiscal 2012 with responses from all the city’s departments about the ideas in their jurisdiction, plus an ongoing “The Status of Ideas” section.
The technology platform for Engage Omaha is a local company called MindMixer, founded in 2010 with initial funding from Omaha-based Dundee Venture Capital. MindMixer’s website at www.mindmixer.com now lists more than two dozen communities from all over the country gathering citizen input using the tool.
This is encouraging, and I encourage you to visit the Engage Omaha site and make a contribution to the discussion. Go ahead, it’s easy, no training required. Tell the kids.
Maybe more of us will be able to truly enjoy the fruits of the wonderful hot mess that is democracy.
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.