Embracing the Untaskforce, Social Media and Civic Involvement - #swct

Local Governments, when faced with specific problems, often convene special task forces. These task forces have a typical format. They are focused on a specific problem. These problems are broken into their component issues. Stakeholders are identified and politically well connected people that have time, interest and some basic level of expertise are recruited and a timeline is established for the taskforce to meet specific outcomes.

Social media has the potential to turn all of this on its head. Political connections are supplemented with connections that have been strengthened through the use of online tools. Experts in specific areas can be found and connected to online. In New Haven, a growing group of people have worked together to promote New Haven as a location for Google to roll out its high speed Internet testbed and to organize Social Web Week, referred to by the hashtag #swct. Now, they seek to continue their discussions in City Hall about the possibility of a Social Web Task Force.

The initial reaction was similar to what any local government would do. The interested parties gathered in City Hall with the goal of identifying the key objectives, stakeholders and outcomes. Yet something interesting and different emerged. Instead of establishing a list of objectives like: use social media to help the residents of New Haven better understand what is happening in the public schools or the aldermanic chambers, a single objective emerged. While a specific phrase was not used, the idea is something like establishing a framework or platform to enable connections between New Haven stakeholders to improve the quality of life in New Haven.

This, of course, begs the question, who are the stakeholders in New Haven? The answer was immediately clear. Everyone. With such broad goals, how do you proceed? How do you measure outcomes? Based on some of the ideas from the GoogleHaven effort, it was quickly agreed that we need to connect 100 people with ideas about how to improve the quality of life in New Haven to people that can help make those ideas happen.

Some people immediately thought about a platform in terms of the technology. Perhaps some thought of something like SeeClickFix on steroids. Yet a platform or framework for accomplishing this task may be more about the people and their connections than the underlying technology. It may be that technological tools already exist and what is really needed is getting more people thinking about and aware of how they can use such existing tools to help make connections that will strengthen New Haven.

In many ways, this leads back to Open Space Technology, the underlying ideas behind unconferences such as barcamps and the upcoming Podcamp in Connecticut. With thousands of stakeholders, any of which may have great ideas that need to be heard, it would be presumptuous for the couple dozen people in a conference room in City Hall to come up with the list of issues to be addressed. Instead, a process to facilitate anyone in New Haven finding others to work with them on ideas to improve New Haven should be established. Done right, this will help people get better services from their government and bring better ideas to their government. It will use social media to reduce bureaucracy. It will help make local government much more of a government, of, by and for the people.

One set of ideas is likely to be ways of further refining the process of using social media to facilitate people connecting to share ideas with others in New Haven. So, while there are initial goals of connecting one hundred people with one hundred ideas in one hundred days, the process will be iterative. It will change and even better methods will emerge. From a technology perspective, it will be similar to Rapid Application Development. It seems like Open Space Technology and Rapid Application Development logically go hand in hand.

Perhaps a good way of looking at this is in terms of an ‘untaskforce’. An untaskforce is to task forces what an unconference is to conferences. Will New Haven succeed in setting examples of new forms of local government interaction based on untaskforces? Folks at City Hall appear receptive and the people behind GoogleHaven and #swct appear eager to build upon their earlier successes.

Join New Haven in exploring an untaskforce. Share your ideas about how we can help people use new tools to better connect and share ideas about improving New Haven. What do you think the framework or platform should be like? There will be a meeting next Tuesday at City Hall at 9:30 in the morning. I will be there. Between now and then, I’ll mostly be on vacation, so I may not be responding to messages as quickly as normal, but let me know your ideas, or simply show up next Tuesday.