Opinion: Post-Trump, local governments need to focus on engagement, not just policy


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As president, Donald Trump threatens to reverse progress on many important issues such as immigration, healthcare, LBGTQ rights and climate change. 

Cities represent the best hope for resisting Trump’s damaging efforts and even continuing to pursue progressive policies during the Trump years. And already, many cities have stepped up to the challenge, such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles declaring they will remain sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants even if Trump cuts off federal funding to their cities. We should laud these efforts to protect rights and encourage other cities to follow suit.

But that is not enough. The election of Donald Trump represents a more existential threat to cities: a challenge against their fundamental value and legitimacy.

The U.S. has witnessed a breakdown of its institutions over the past several decades. The percentage of people who say it is essential to live in a democracy has steadily declined, while trust in mass media is at an all-time low. Trump threatens to further undercut democratic norms and public faith in institutions with actions such as asserting widespread voter fraud and attacking journalists who criticize him. 

Local governments must make it their primary objective to rebuild relationships with citizens by advertising their value for society and more deeply engaging the public in decision-making.

Within City Hall, it is easy to lose sight of these goals. The rush to produce effective policy often emphasizes one mission at the expense of another — improving the lives of residents and visitors takes precedence over rebuilding trust in civic institutions. And while effective policy is a critical element of building trust, even the most effective policy will have little impact on perceptions of government if the public does not know about the policy nor have a stake in developing it. As former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith writes, “projects often fail not due to problems with technical or financial execution, but when the city is unable to craft a compelling narrative.”

One area of particular promise for innovation and improved public engagement is data and technology. What are some initiatives that have the potential to improve public faith in government — or, if deployed poorly, undermine it?

Open data

Since Barack Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government emphasizing the need for “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” on his first day in office, cities of all sizes from across the country have launched open data portals and released troves of data. But this is just the beginning. Open data is a means toward transparency, accountability, and collaboration, not the end. Cities should ensure that the way in which they release data is open — transparency achieved opaquely will not generate public trust. 

Furthermore, data by itself creates little value. The average resident has neither the knowledge nor motivation to look up raw datasets. In other words, open data should be a platform, not a service. Whether by developing applications themselves or working with academics, technologists, and journalists, cities should find creative ways to create true value for residents on top of open data.

Internet of Things

Using Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, municipalities will gather data that could improve transportation, environmental conditions and public safety.

Yet as cities become more focused on optimizing services and operations based on IoT-enabled data, they risk losing sight of broader goals that are hard to measure. How do you factor happiness and institutional trust into an algorithm that optimizes traffic flow? As the co-founder of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Nigel Jacob, likes to say, a city should be “delightful,” not just efficient. 

Cities deploying IoT should also actively protect the privacy of its constituents. Public concerns about government surveillance suggest that anything seen as unwarranted government data collection will generate a backlash — this has already happened in cities that implemented sensor technologies without adequately engaging the public beforehand. Even if the intentions are good, rolling out new technologies without public discussion will compound concern and suspicion, and feed into the narrative that the government cannot be trusted.

Civic engagement applications

Many cities have deployed new ways to engage with constituents and allow constituents to voice their concerns. In Boston, mobile app BOS:311 receives hundreds of constituent requests every day. Yet because these applications rely predominantly on requests about issues such as potholes and broken streetlights, they develop what Tim O’Reilly describes as a “vending machine government,” in which “collective action has been watered down to collective complaint.” Thus, even when a citizen is satisfied with the response to her request, she has further bought into the model of city-as-customer-service-agency — she is happy that the city solved her problem, but may not trust it more or want to engage further.

Meanwhile, research on civic engagement suggests that getting people to fill out an online petition has limited impact without efforts that foster deeper involvement. So while there is value in allowing citizens to report potholes, the imperative for cities as they develop the next generation of engagement applications is to move constituents toward taking a more active role in their communities.

The dangers posed by Trump and the declining trust in institutions that his election represents indicates that cities must take on a mission even larger than developing and fighting for progressive policies — they must act as stewards of American democracy. 

Combatting the decline in democratic norms and trust in government requires not just effective policy, but also explicit efforts to ensure that people are engaged with and support democratic governance. If deployed effectively, tech-driven initiatives such as open data, the Internet of Things, and civic engagement applications can help cities build public support. But if governments deploy these programs without care, they will only exacerbate the growing disconnect.

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