Computerizing Local Government . . . and Democracy

            Technology’s increasing control over our lives became absurdly comical last year when, for the first time in 52 years, I became obsessed with the length of my thumb nails, the only “tools” I had for pressing the keys on my new blackberry.

             But a day doesn’t pass when I’m not experiencing another new – and positive – effect technology is having on our ability to govern ourselves at the local level. If Thomas Jefferson could be brought back for a day he would be more than amazed.  He would be proud.

             The examples are many. 

             I can sit at my computer and find the website of any local government in the state within seconds.  In less than the time it would take to go pour a cup of coffee I can ascertain who its governing board members are and when they meet, learn the names and contact information of planning staff, find an electronic copy of its development ordinance, and hit the print button to self-publish a copy to take with me to a meeting in that jurisdiction.  Would you like cream and sugar with that?

             Zoning maps and comprehensive plan maps used to be available – for a price – when you got into your car and drove to city hall to find a hard copy.  Now, not only can I find and print color-coded maps off of local government websites, but through the magic of Geographical Information Systems I can apply “layers” and add in blue-line streams, topography, roads, and political boundaries of precincts and electoral districts.

             My generation has experienced the “wow!” factor of technological change for decades, but the applications and experiences of change now occur months, not years, apart.  Unfortunately, several years into the digital revolution, the vocabulary is still Greek to me. Or should I say “Geek”?

             Technology has meant greater governmental transparency. Electronic storage of public information makes it easier for governments to store and provide documents to citizens.  Send the city or county clerk an email request and the documents can come back in seconds.

             Local governments that televise their meetings used to provide you with a VHS tape for a hefty ransom.  Now those same meetings can be watched (and recorded) at no charge weeks later using your laptop while sitting on the beach or on your ipod between innings.

             Surprisingly, citizens with no item on the agenda actually watch these meetings in real time as well.  It might be the month of March Madness and American Idol finals, but there will still be thousands of folks who turn to their public access channel to watch budget deliberations or, in my case, a rezoning case of no particular note.  I know.  In the days that follow a public hearing, nobody will tell me they saw me quoted in the paper, but a dozen folks will tell me they watched the hearing on TV.

             Within the governmental ranks, a police officer can know within seconds whether a suspect has a criminal record; a public works director can tell you exactly where garbage trucks are on their delivery routes; and a traffic engineer in a control booth can alter a road system’s signalization.

             And have plenty of time remaining to get another cup of coffee, with or without cream and sugar.

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