Beyond Information Without Impact

By: Eric Jaye

SF 311
Here’s the good news – the idea that governments should collect feedback from residents is gaining broader acceptance under the banner of Gov. 2.0.

Here’s the bad news – most of it is, and will continue to be, ignored unless we create ways to hold our political leaders accountable to this data.      

Time for Gov. 2.0 to Go Beyond Open Data

Open data is a great tool – but at the end of the day a better app to tell me just how late my bus is going to be only goes so far. What we need is data that forces the political leadership to respond to why the bus is still late and how they are going to fix the problem.

So here’s a simple idea to start implementing Gov 2.0 in practice.  Our interim Mayor Ed Lee is starting to appear before the Board of Supervisors for a new San Francisco tradition – “Question Time.” This import is from the British model of parliamentary democracy (a great show if you’ve every seen it on BBC America).

The politicians now have time to ask their questions.

But what about the rest of us?

How about asking the Mayor to respond not just to the questions of other politicians – but also to the facts being gathered by the city’s 311 system, particularly the complaints and customer feedback generated by 311.

The 311 Director could come and give a simple report. Something like, “Mayor – 328 people complained this month about lack of reliable transit. Any response?”

Not Just Gathering Government Data – Acting On It

At its best, 311 is more than a glorified switchboard. It is a way to create the clear accountability of data. When 311 was successfully sold in tough budget battles, it was called the civic equivalent of the successful Compstat systems that have been used to create accountability and better management in police departments around the nation.

The switchboard function of 311 is working very well.  And the training of those manning the center seems uniformly excellent. It is truly a world-class switchboard.

But what about the data? Where is the accountability? Who is being held accountable to the information collected, and how?

Since reform at its best starts at the top – let’s start at the top.

Have the Mayor respond, in public, to the data being collected by 311.

If the 311 Director shows up and reports that complaints are down and compliments are up – the Mayor can take a well-deserved public bow.

And if the data show busses are still late, streets are still dirty, taxies still don’t come on time, San Francisco parking tickets are still a trap for the unwary and we still can’t find a place to buy a Clipper Card – our mayors can respond to that data as well.

Open data is a great first step and San Francisco has led the way in this field. Now let’s lead on data that creates political accountability.

Bernadette's picture

311 + SF + Open Data + Metrics + Analysis = Accountability

I agree that 311 and Open Data are very important and very (potentially) useful if, as shown by the previous responses, used innovatively, or, I guess just plain used at all.

In response to Sophie's question "Accountability is important, but how do we create that kind of accountability?" I think we can create that accountability through even more surveying and data collection before and after certain hopefully major governmental response!

San Francisco could do this:

1. All these complaints get "coded" (I'm sitting in my sociology methods class right now learning about coding - hence this very nerdy response to this blog) into different types of complaints based on subject matter (this should be much easier now that we have hashtags with Twitter).

2. A graph or chart shows the complaint types, frequency of complaints, and general San Franciscan approval rating (for lack of a better phrase) RIGHT NOW.

3. City Hall could hopefully make the desired changes or at least respond somehow.

4. San Franciscans can be informed about these changes (if the changes are actually made) and then surveyed to see their approval rating of the change, any ideas for further improvement, etc.

5. All of that new data gets published and then even more improvements made from there!

We could even have a chart that shows approval ratings and severity of complaints and even types of complaints (for example, a chart with the frequency of MUNI complaints per day) that then has markers tracking when certain actions/improvements were made to see the effect of those actions/improvements were on approval rating, complaint type, complaint frequency, and even just a (I'm guessing) subjective view of the quality of that aspect of SF life (in this example's case, a more objective collection of data on the quality of MUNI service).

Also, as I just learned in the aforementioned sociology lecture, all this data collection and, more importantly, analysis takes a lot of money. Despite that, I think that this can be framed (sociology again!) as an investment rather than an expense because this can definitely lead to more insight that can then help the city improve itself, leading to better quality of life and more interest in living, working, visiting this already great city of ours.

However, we have to face the facts: This is all still dependent on City Hall making those changes in the first place.

SophieT's picture

Gov 2.0 Brilliant tech, but HOW do we hold gov't accountable

What will it take to get the 311 director to that kind of meeting? I think Mayor Edwin Lee is admirable for creating "Question Time," but I would also like to see a version of "Question Time" geared towards the ordinary San Franciscan and the issues they want to focus on. 311 and other Gov 2.0 tools would be a great way to collect that data without having hours of questions. Web 2.0 tools are a great way to quickly gather mass quantities of data and synthesize it as well. Let's implement this brilliant new technology better.


Accountability is important, but how do we create that kind of accountability?


I have never used 311 because I guess I didn't believe it would really do anything. I would like San Francisco to change my mindset and show me that complaints I have with the city, whether it's with the condition of roads or lack of working parking meters (which always lands me a huge ticket!), are actually being heard.

Clarissa Chang's picture

I'm so excited to bridge

I'm so excited to bridge government and technology! It's about time. Everyone uses the internet so it'll be a great way to get our voices heard. 

Ben Shore's picture

Simple idea could mean big changes

I've often wondered what happens when someone goes through 311 to make a complaint or point out some kind of issue. I guess I just assume - like many other aspects of SF government - that it goes into the ether, never to be resolved. But it shouldn't be, of course. The idea of confronting the data in an open setting is fantastic. And Mayor Lee seems - from all appearances - like the type of mayor who would support something like this. I hope he does. While we may not all have the time to go back and check and see if that pot hole we reported a few months back ever got fixed, knowing that the data is being delievered and indeed answered is both comforting and reassuring that we have a government that is working.

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