Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 2, 2009.  Since then, I have worked with Oakland County, Michigan to put in place a program like this.  More on that in a later blog post.]

When computers were introduced into white-collar businesses a couple of decades ago, one of the first effects that people noticed was that companies began to shrink the ranks of middle management. Middle managers, whose major job was collecting, summarizing and reporting data to higher management, were no longer needed once the computers could do the same thing, only faster. The very highest management, the CEO, essentially could get direct reports from the lowest person in the hierarchy. This phenomenon was labeled ”disintermediation” because it eliminated the intermediary.

With the presence of personal computers and Internet connections in the majority of American homes, there is now the potential to similarly reduce some of the barriers between you (the chief elected official) and the average citizen. 

Traditionally, the top officials of government would almost always deliver public services through paid civil service staff or the equivalent paid staff in non-profit agencies or private companies through outsourcing contracts. The staff is the intermediary between you and the public.

Doing things this way goes beyond the various forms of citizen suggestions that some government websites offer today – elected officials can actually facilitate the creation of public services by enabling citizens to help each other. 

In the current recession, some leaders will immediately think of the potential cost savings that can occur when shifting some public services from paid staff to volunteer citizens. But an even bigger and longer lasting problem is the pending retirement of the baby boomers, who account for a large fraction of government workers. How will they be replaced? Should their positions be filled or should we look for new ways to deliver services?

The Internet connects citizens to each other and the government; the software technology is available. The missing piece is the leadership to put this new approach in place. 

What kind of services might you start with? One good way to start is the first line of services – for example, finding out how to get a park pass or sign up for ”meals on wheels”. This kind of service does not require years of specialized experience, but just having gone through the process. One slightly more experienced citizen can help another inexperienced citizen with such information. 

If you’re concerned about the quality of information, you can have paid staff monitor the discussions -but that will take considerably less staff than having them answer all of the questions to begin with. The paid staff can then be focused on the more complex problems that do, in fact, require their special skills and background.

And there are three other benefits to this approach. First, it draws more people into the process of governing – voters who might feel more a part of your team or, at least, have a better understanding of what your government deals with. 

Second, when the private sector has set up similar mutual support for its customers, they found that the customers preferred this way of solving problems. Also, many customers felt that someone who was not a paid staff member of the company was more credible. 

Third, although there can be criticisms of the government on these sites, that acts as an early warning system to you as the head of the government. Without this direct citizen support, it might take much longer for you to learn about a festering problem in the bureaucracy, which makes it that much more difficult to fix the problem.

For some examples of how private companies have done this, take a look at these websites:

While these sites mostly use text, it is also possible for citizens to talk to each other as well. And, as you develop more experience with this and network broadband becomes a reality, there are bound to be greater advancements and uses of citizen collaboration to deliver public services.

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© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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