Commentary

02/07/2012 by John Guenther

Just Hanging Out: Governing by webcam

Recently, President Obama completed the first White House Google+ Hangout in which he took questions live from five people sitting at home in a “digital town hall.” The partnership between Google and White House met with varying degrees of success.

But the technology behind the event has potential to boost online outreach of city governments. It’s one thing for a city to have a web presence. It’s quite another thing to actually get someone to look at it and interact with it.

Early efforts included live streaming city council meetings over the Web. Many cities created Facebook pages and Twitter accounts after social media took hold. Other cities launched online commenting on meeting agendas for people who can’t attend.

Now with tech like the Hangout, a city can take one step further towards Web 3.0 and out of the council chamber. The “big idea” would be that cities aren’t merely transparent but also interactive in real time and striving to get people civically engaged.

One could envision city council members inviting people in their Google+ “Circles” to participate in a Hangout to ask questions or provide their input though their webcam. Later on, it will possible to record a Hangout and share it on a city Facebook page.

Although, anyone who’s been to a city council meeting knows it’s possible the public could get tired of the hum-drum of a meeting agenda, even in a fancy, new package.

But, local governments could also hold one-off special events hangouts, such as the Chicago health department’s World AIDS Day discussion.

And the “new-fangled thing,” as the President called it, wouldn’t require a lot of resources, just some webcams and microphones. It could at least send a message and spark interest in people who wouldn’t normally go to a physical meeting or watch a live stream. And, let’s face it, that’s a lot of people.

A survey released this month showed 66 percent of Californians favor shifting more money and responsibility away from the state and toward local government. But, the survey, run by the Public Policy Institute of California, also showed that 44 percent of those polled knew “very little” or “nothing” about how their state and local governments raise and spend money.

So, citizens favor their local government but many don’t know enough to confidently say they know how it works. If cities use tools like Hangouts effectively to fill that information gap, government accountability and responsiveness have only one way to go: up.

There are still some restrictions on the technology currently. Hangouts are restricted to no more than 10 participants. But, Google may eventually let more organizations live broadcast their hangouts on YouTube and future iterations could be better tailored for city meetings.

At the very least, the next big thing could attract a new generation of gadflies to a virtual city hall.

John Guenther is a Production Coordinator at California Forward

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