California is the land of billion-dollar budget deficits and mega-tussles over who’ll take the biggest hit when the state budget gets its final, massive chop from Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature.
If you look down a level, to the more than 5,000 city and county governments in the state, you’ll see budget angst, too. But you’ll also see innovation – the growing use of new digital tools to make government not only cheaper to operate but more convenient and closer to its citizens:
• In Anaheim, Calif., the phone number 311 serves as a nonemergency hot line that allows anyone to get in touch with city hall. It’s available 24 hours a day and links residents to services such as graffiti removal, electric and water payments, housing assistance, even obtaining building codes and permits.
• In Santa Clarita, near Los Angeles, residents can go online night or day to sign up for 30 different kinds of notifications about events, register for city-sponsored classes and activities, apply for or submit permits, or ask the police to check their house during a vacation. They can even learn just how the city is spending the federal funds it receives.
• In Santa Cruz, on Monterey Bay in northern California, citizens can view an interactive crime-mapping website that allows them to see where crimes have happened.
• In Sacramento, the state capital, residents can check out a Nook eReader from their library, loaded with 20 books of various types. The library provides training on how to use the device.
The list goes on. In Santa Clara County, anyone can register online from home or at a kiosk to visit someone in jail. In Nevada County, you can find one of 60 video cameras spread around the county and videoconference with local government officials, saving a long drive. In Anaheim, truant students can serve their probation by carrying a GPS device provided by the school and police that monitors their whereabouts.
These examples, and many more, are cited in “Hear Us Now,” a survey of the use of digital tools by California’s local governments released by the New America Foundation last month.
These efforts, the survey concludes, offer California an opportunity to be a leader in the use of what’s being called e-government.
“The promise of eGovernment is a more democratic, citizen- and community-centered problem-solving society that embodies less top-down government control,” the survey says. “Problems and solutions flow directly from citizens with little or no public agency interference or handling.”
The programs now under way would be enhanced if a coordinated effort were made on a regular basis to collect and share best practices among local governments, learning from each other’s successes and reducing trial-and-error mistakes, the report says.
It also recommends that, much like Anaheim’s effort to have just one universal number for all government calls, website addresses should be more standardized. Right now, local sites may end with .org, .gov, .us, .net, .com, .info, or .ws, which can cause confusion.
E-government cuts red tape, the use of paper – even vehicle congestion as citizens take care of government-related “chores” online.
But most important, e-government opens up the inner workings of government to average citizens. It's much more than just a more efficient way to disseminate information and services. It can become a valuable two-way conversation between governments and those they serve.