A definition for civic innovation

Out in California, Tina Lee asked about the best definition for civic innovation. As someone who has served as a fellow in the City of San Francisco’s Department of Technology Services, Lee has some personal context and interest.

According her tweets, she wants to distill the various definitions available online down to one working definition for educational purposes that would enable her to tease out the skills that are needed for 21st century civic engagement.

As it happens, I wrote definitions for years at WhatIs.com. This is an assignment that interests me. First, break down civic innovation into its components.

Webster defines “civic” as “or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.” Examples: “civic duty” or “civic pride.”

Webster defines for “innovation” as either “the introduction of something new” or “a new idea, method, or device.” Example: GPS navigation systems.

So, how could one define “civic engagement?” Concisely, with examples:

In this context, then, we might broadly define civic innovation as” new idea or method that improves the lives of citizens, the functions of cities, the practice of citizenship, or the state of community affairs.”

Maryland chief innovation officer Bryan Sivak, however, that “innovation challenges existing processes and systems, resulting in the injection, rapid execution and validation of new ideas into the ecosystem. In short, innovation asks “why?” a lot.”

San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath told me via email this year that civic innovation “can be as simple as finding new ways to solve old problems. The real challenge is how to scale across a large organization and through time.”

Nath says that civic innovation is driven by resource constraints. “I recognize the value of applying lean methodology to public sector,” wrote Nath. “For the past few years, I’ve been operating without any budget and often without any direct staff. The way to innovate with these constraints is through partnerships, open innovation, and applying lean principles.”

Given that, a better definition for civic innovation might be a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

Like the definition? Dislike it? Have ideas to improve it? Let us know in the comments — or share your version on Twitter using the #civicinnovation hashtag.

Regulations.gov relaunches with APIs, integrates social media, hopes for public participation

President Barack Obama signs H.R. 2751, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On January 18, 2011, President Obama issued an executive order directing that regulations shall be adopted through a process that involves participation. 13 months later, the nation’s primary online regulatory website received an overdue redesign and, significantly, a commitment from the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to make regulatory data available to the public.

Today, the White House announced the relaunch of Regulations.gov in a post on remaking public participation by Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the OIRA:

…the President issues Executive Order 13563, in which he directed regulatory agencies to base regulations on an “open exchange of information and perspectives” and to promote public participation in Federal rulemaking.  The President identified Regulations.gov as the centralized portal for timely public access to regulatory content online.

In response to the President’s direction, Regulations.gov has launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections, and better access to regulatory data.  The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.

The redesign of Regulations.gov also fulfills the President’s commitment in The Open Government Partnership National Action Plan to “improve public services,” including to “expand public participation in the development of regulations.” This step is just one of many, consistent with the National Action Plan, designed to make our Federal Government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

I’ve embedded the video that Regulations.gov released about the launch below:

The relaunch includes the following changes:

  • New Regulations.gov and Web design.
  • A new “Browse” tab that groups regulations into 10 categories, sorted by industry
  • A new “Learn” tab that describes the regulatory process
  • Improved search
  • Integrated social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Regulations.gov Exchange)
  • New Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and standard, Federal Register-specific URLs.

That last detail will be of particular interest to the open government and open data community. Sunstein explained the thinking behind the role of APIs at the WhiteHouse.gov blog:

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are technical interfaces/tools that allow people to pull regulatory content from Regulations.gov. For most of us, the addition of “APIs” on Regulations.gov doesn’t mean much, but for web managers and experts in the applications community, providing APIs will fundamentally change the way people will be able to interact with public federal regulatory data and content.

The initial APIs will enable developers to pull data out of Regulations.gov, and in future releases, the site will include APIs for receiving comment submissions from other sites. With the addition of APIs, other web sites – ranging from other Government sites to industry associations to public interest groups – will now be able to repurpose publicly-available regulatory information on Regulations.gov, and format this information in unique ways such as mobile apps, analytical tools, “widgets” and “mashups.” We don’t know exactly where this will lead us – technological advances are full of surprises – but we are likely to see major improvements in public understanding and participation in rulemaking.

While the APIs will need to be explored and the data behind them assessed for quality, releasing regulatory data through APIs could in theory underpin a wide variety of new consumer-facing services. If you’re interested in the APIs, click on “Developers – Beta” at Regulations.gov to download a PDF with that contains API directions, URLs and information about an API Key.

A time for e-rulemaking

This move comes as part of a larger effort towards e-rulemaking by this White House that will almost certainly be carried over into future administrations, regardless of the political persuasion of the incumbent of the Oval Office. In the 21st century, the country desperately needs a smarter approach to regulations.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the ongoing regulatory review by OIRA is a nod to serious, long-standing concerns in the business community about excessive regulation hampering investment and job creation as citizens struggle to recover from the effects of the Great Recession.

As the cover story of this month’s issue of The Economist highlights, concerns about an over-regulated America are cresting in this election year, with headlines from that same magazine decrying “excessive environmental regulation” and calling for more accurate measurement of the cost of regulations. Deleting regulations is far from easy to do but there does appear to be a political tailwind behind doing so.

We’ll see if an upgraded online portal that is being touted as a means to include the public in participating in rulemaking makes any difference in regulatory outcomes. Rulemaking and regulatory review are, virtually by their nature, wonky and involve esoteric processes that rely upon knowledge of existing laws and regulations.

While the Internet could involve many more people in the process, improved outcomes will depend upon an digitally literate populace that’s willing to spend some of its civic surplus on public participation.

To put it another way, getting to “Regulations 2.0” will require “Citizen 2.0” — and we’ll need the combined efforts of all our schools, universities, libraries, non-profits and open government advocates to have a hope of successfully making that upgrade.

How do you build online community and moderate social media?

Last month, I wrote a popular post on the value of blog comments. My take: Whether you choose to have comments or not speaks to whether you want to create an online community, which requires a human’s touch to manage and moderate, or to simply publish your thoughts publicly online, without making the necessary commitment of time and patience.

As is often the case, I agree with Mathew Ingram: blog comments are worth the effort. Last week, I had the opportunity to expand upon what I meant in a public forum here in the District of Columbia during Social Media Week.

Creating and managing high quality online conversations isn’t easy but I strongly believe that it’s worth it. Following is a storify of the online conversation that emerged on the Twitter “backchannel” during the panel discussion and some rules of the road that explain how I’m approaching moderation on Facebook and Google+, where I now have over 50,000 circlers/subscribers combined.

On moderating Facebook and Google+ public pages

Over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of spam and pornography links pop up on the blogs I moderate, on Facebook and on the Google+. Fortunately, Google and Facebook both give us the ability to moderate comments and, if we wish, to block other people who do not respect the opinions or character of others. Last month, I saw a lack of clarity about my approach to online community, so here’s how I think about it, with a nod to Dan Gillmor’s example:

I can and do block spammers and people posting links to pornography.

I generally leave comments on my blogs, precisely because I value conversations, despite the issues that persist online. I have been moderating discussion in online forums and blogs for many years, including those of my publishers.

Insulting me, slandering my employer or my professional work won’t help your case. Insulting others will ruin it.
I was a teacher in my twenties. I would not tolerate disrespectful behavior in my classroom, either to me or to other students. If you can’t be civil and continue to insult others, much less the person hosting the forum, you were asked to leave and see the principal.

If the behavior persists, you will lose the privilege of participating in the class at all.
Eventually, you get expelled. On Google+ or blogs, that takes the form of being defriended, banned or blocked from my public updates. I prefer not to block users but I will do so. I respect your right to speak freely on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook or Google+ account, whether that involves cursing or ignorance.

I strongly believe in the First Amendment, with respect to government not censoring citizens. That said, I do not feel obligated to host such speech on my own blog, particularly if it is directed towards other commenters. I believe that building and maintaining healthy communities, online of offline, requires that the people hosting them enforce standards for participation that encourage civil dialogue.

I hope that makes sense to folks here. If not, you are welcome to let me know in the comments.

A tale of 42 tweets: Highlights from my first Social Media Week in DC

Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.

Going mobile and social at the USDA DigitalGov Open House

Last week, the General Service Agency’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, the USDA and the Federal Web Managers Social Media Sub-Committee hosted a social media open house at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Here’s what I learned, as told using social media — in this case, an iPhone, Twitter and Instagram.

Highlights:

  • The USDA has a location-aware mobile app for farmers markets
  • The GAO is going to officially launch an iPhone app soon
  • The U.S. Department of Education is tweeting at @FAFSA, chronicling Twitter chats with Storify and collaborating internally with Yammer, a microblogging application
  • The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has an iOS app that lets citizens explore wildlife refuges.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

U.S. Government Accountability Office

U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Fish and Wildlife

How does the State Department practice public diplomacy in the age of social media?

Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:

  • 125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
  • 195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
  • 288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.

The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.

What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.

That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.

This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.

Video streaming by UstreaPARTICIPANTS

  • Suzanne Hall (@SuzKPH), Senior Advisor, Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair, U.S. Department of State
  • Nick Namba (@nicholasnamba), Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program
  • Ed Dunn (@EdAndDunn), Acting Director, U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center

From analog to digital diplomacy: a snapshot of the evolution of the tools of the diplomat

A display of the evolution of tech at the State Department
A display at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.

If you’re interested in public diplomacy in the age of social media, I hope you’ll join me (either virtually or in person) at the New America Foundation next week, where I’ll be moderating a discussion on how the latest connection technologies are being applied to statecraft in the 21st century. Who’s participating and why? What have been some lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to listen and engage?

I’ll be talking with the following three representatives from the U.S. Department of State, each of whom will share case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches:

  • SuzKPH
    Suzanne Hall
    , Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • EdAndDunn
    Ed Dunn
    , Acting Director the U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center, U.S. Department of State
  • nicholasnamba
    Nick Namba
    , Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State

If you have questions for the panel, please submit them and vote for others on Google Moderator. Of course, I’ll also be monitoring the hashtag for the event (#SMWdiplomacy) on Twitter during the event, along with comment threads on Google+ and Facebook.