The new town square is virtual, and government needs to set up shop there

As the U.S. representative for the heart of Silicon Valley, I have the privilege of seeing how invention and technology can unlock new possibilities. That’s why I’m an advocate for using new technology to further our common aims as a society and increase collaboration between citizens and their government. I call it Government 2.0.

There are two primary avenues for doing this: social media and crowdsourcing. Social media improves communication between people and their elected representatives, while crowdsourcing allows government representatives and civil servants to ask the citizenry to help solve specific, concrete problems in a cost-efficient manner.

The benefits of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter come from the way they foster conversation. Unlike political ads or mass mailings, they are forms of two-way communication; social media doesn’t exist just for politicians to tweet at the American people – the American people can tweet back.

And because those tweets – or blog posts, or Facebook updates – are public, they are a far more powerful form of communication than writing a letter to your elected representative. It is an equalizing method of communication, and in a democracy, equality is a goal we strive for.

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Compared to the social media, the benefits of crowdsourcing may at first be less obvious. It’s a term more associated with the business world than government, where standout companies have built powerful communities to solicit ideas for T-shirts, offer stock imagery, or post technical challenges. And today federal, state and municipal governments already are using crowdsourcing to tackle tough problems.

A recent report by Daren Brabham, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, identifies four distinct ways governments can harness the power of online communities. The first is when governments use crowdsourcing to gather information more thoroughly and efficiently than they could do on their own. The website SeeClickFix is one example. It’s a platform used by municipal governments across the country that allows citizens to call attention to problems in their neighborhood like clogged storm drains, downed traffic lights, potholes and graffiti. When governments know where the problems are, they can calculate the most efficient way to fix them.

The second way governments use crowdsourcing is to break down overwhelmingly large tasks into manageable components, then assign the tasks to volunteers. When the U.S. Census Bureau wanted to convert data from its handwritten, 1940 census records, it enlisted volunteers to manually transcribe the data from the image files. The FBI also made use of the technique when it investigated the Boston marathon bombing. The agency asked race-goers to submit their photos from the event to search for possible clues.

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Thirdly, governments can sponsor competitions to find the one mind capable of solving a confounding technical problem. By broadcasting the competition widely on the Internet, the challenge can reach many people, including the person who can find the answer. NASA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Geological Survey all have used this method.

It was written into law three years ago with the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. At interested citizens can learn more these opportunities. One example is the SAVE Award, first given by President Obama in 2009 to the federal employee whose cost-cutting suggestion saves the government the most money. Last year’s winner proposed that federal employees who receive mass transit cards switch to the senior discount rate as soon as they’re eligible, an idea that will cut the cost of the benefit almost in half.

The last use of crowdsourcing is when a government challenges an online community to solve a problem that doesn’t have a “right” answer. The community generates solutions, then evaluates them. This is the approach my office took recently when redesigning my website to better serve constituents. We posted a description of what we needed for the new site at crowdSPRING, an online marketplace for writing and design services. Over three weeks we received 26 design concepts. But I didn’t select the winner. Instead, we engaged another community – constituents in the 17th District of California – to vote on which design they thought was easiest to use.

From designing a website to saving taxpayer money to fixing potholes, technology is enabling citizens to engage with their government in new and meaningful ways. We can, and should, adopt these tactics more broadly. After all, a robust democracy depends on that engagement, which is why it we who have been entrusted to represent the American people should encourage it to flourish in all forms.

Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17) has represented Silicon Valley in Congress for over 12 years. He is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Chair Emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and House Democratic Senior Whip.

Crowdsourcing image provided by Shutterstock user Andrea Danti.

Flag image courtesy of Shutterstock user R.L.Hausdorf.