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Wednesday, July 13

Dial 311: Getting unstuck from the intersection of government incompetence and the Mass Age

The US government has embarked on a long-range policy to promote genuine democracy in regions of the world that have no history with it -- and in the rural areas at least, only the most tenuous acquaintance with Western values. This policy will outlast the Bush administration.

Yesterday I reported that Atanu Dey had written about the difficulty of trying to leapfrog the evolutionary process of rural development in poor countries. What the US government envisions is leapfrogging the evolutionary process of democracy in Western countries.

When people speak of the success stories of Germany and Japan, they tend to overlook that Germany and Japan were Westernized, advanced industrial nations at the start of World War Two. So while genuine democracy was not in their history, it was relatively easy for the United States to transpose the basic US democratic model onto those conquered nations after the war. And of course, those countries were under US martial law during the transition period.

Now we're trying something that's never been tried before, which is to transpose mature, genuine democracy to nations where there is very little "infrastructure" in place to support genuine democracy.

Is this is a fool's quest? Absolutely not, if you believe in human potential; if you consider that a nation's greatest resource is its people. It is no cause for surprise that if given half a chance and guidelines on how to 'do' democracy, peoples the world figure out the ropes very quickly.

What's not easy to figure out is how to efficiently and humanely govern megapopulations in this highly complex era. For that, you need a big and very sophisticated knowledge base because the logistics of serving megapopulations are mind-boggling. If you've ever seen a traffic control center for even a medium-sized city, you get a hint of the complexity of making modern society work smoothly.

When things break down in a modern industrialized democracy, the voters demand a fix and get at least an approximation. When the same happens in a nascent democracy in a developing country, the knee-jerk tendency of their governments is to suppress the demands. Part of this suppression is inevitably a sacrifice of the democratic process.

To put this another way, the first victim of gross government incompetence in a nascent democracy is the democratic process. That, rather than revolutionary or anarchist political movements, is today the greatest obstacle to transposing genuine democracy to nations with little or no history of that form of government.

To understand this, remember that the flip side of happy free people casting their votes is hopping mad free people asking their elected officials why the hell nothing works.

The latter experience is very traumatic for governments that were always used to solving citizen complaints by throwing the citizens in jail. And which don't have a clue about how to manage the logistics of serving megapopulations.

Many such governments are not rich enough to do what the Saudis and other Gulf oil governments do when they don't have a clue, which is pick up the phone and ask Bechtel to fix it for them.

Bechtel and other Western companies like them build entire cities, entire transit systems, and so on. But if you can't write $20 billion checks without fainting dead away then you have a problem. Particularly if development and commercial banks are acting childish and demanding you start paying on the last $5 billion they lent you before they'll send back the project engineers to analyze your problem.

So it's not just a matter of plopping in democratic government. If you want the democracy to take root, you need strategies for helping a new democracy deal with the logistics of governing in the Mass Age. The strategies do not come cheap but their most important component, which is knowledge transfer, is not out of any central government's reach. That's provided they clean up the worst corruption and go after the biggest tax cheats.

In many cases, the revenue these governments waste in trying to cover up a problem is more than adequate for solving the problem or at least throwing together a quick fix -- provided they have expert knowledge on how to do the fix. Once you have the fix in place, you can kick the can down the road for the next elected officials to deal with. The democratic way.

Now where do you get the expert knowledge from? Ideally from a database published on the Internet, of the kind that serves scientists, attorneys and medical doctors who, from anywhere in the globe where there's computer access, can look up case studies.

A similar database needs to be created (or pulled together from existing databases) for government workers seeking cutting-edge solutions to municipal and interstate problems. Worldwide, there are millions of retired engineers and government workers who between them have solved just about any municipal works or infrastructure problem you can think of. The task is to get that knowledge base somehow organized and integrated and online. Or at least cross-referenced.

I'll bet there are thousands of computer sites that are essentially message boards for engineers who share information about problems they've solved. So, create a directory of those sites and send it gift-wrapped to every young democratic government.

The other side of the database coin is "Dial 311." If governments can't quickly isolate patterns that suggest trouble in municipalities, they can't deal with the trouble until the works completely break down. So, zeroing in on problems before they reach the breakdown stage is more than half the battle for modern government.

How do you zero in? In the USA, every city has a non-emergency police phone number that takes citizen complaints about everything from excessive noise to traffic jams to a broken fire hydrant.

One day some bright soul said, "Hey! You know all these complaints? If we plugged them into a software program, they could yield patterns that if studied would be an early warning about breakdowns in municipal systems."

The dream has gotten off the ground with 311 technology. The 311 number is set up along the lines of 911 but it's for requests for city services. It's still early days but in 2002 an outbreak of West Nile virus in Chicago gave a spectacular illustration of the utility of the 311 concept.

After 22 Chicago residents had died from the disease, public health officials got the idea to review 311 records for requests to remove dead crows, which are known carriers of West Nile. They cross-matched the caller complaints with neighborhoods were residents had died from the virus. They found that the West Nile virus outbreaks were localized in the neighborhoods where the dead crows had been reported.

That was how the city government learned the hard way that seemingly random resident complaints about even the smallest discomfits of city life can reveal a pattern that if addressed quickly can save lives and millions of tax dollars.

Time magazine, which reported on the 311 technology in an article titled, The Magic Number, noted, “311 has become a direct line into the urban consciousness -- a way of harnessing the collective needs of an entire population to make a city work better. That is urban reform at its most elegant.”

Time's observation barely addresses the implications. The 311 technology is making it a reality for large populations in democracies to bring their knowledge base directly to the government for the betterment of the society.

The technology reverses the trend that has been building for more than a century, which has seen a relatively small number of government workers in charge of handling the problems of megapopulations.

This said, the key to connecting citizens with government in the Mass Age is not 311 on its own. As the EMA website notes:
Outmoded service delivery models simply aren't equipped to deal with contemporary demands. As customer [citizen] expectations soar and resources shrink, many jurisdictions see 311 as the savior.

The solution, however, is not about technology and 311 is more than just a telephone number. In fact, most cities already have the technological capacity to implement one-call service delivery. What they lack is an understanding of the organizational changes necessary to support the initiative and the “back-end” systems and processes to carry it out. Get it right and a call center with an accompanying Internet presence becomes a one-stop shop for customer inquiries, online payment options, work order status reports, and new work requests for every city department.

However, decision makers must grasp the implications of this approach before diving in head-first. Only then can government proceed to responsibly implement 311 in a way that leverages existing technology and invests in organizational and practice improvement.

By adopting best practices, standardizing operations and technology across departmental boundaries, and implementing the best available technology, the city can respond quickly to citizen requests, communicate better internally and externally, and reduce costs.
Yet a means for citizens in emerging democracies to directly connect with their government via 311 technology is crucial. It is the key to helping governments at the local and federal levels to coordinate tax-funded programs and head off just the kind of breakdowns in government services that create citizen frustration with the democratic process.

Before Paul Wolfowitz took up his duties as World Bank President, the scuttlebutt was that the Bank was reviewing their sins under the Wolfensohn "Small and scattered is beautiful" approach to lending to Third World countries. This view considers that the Bank should return to its strength, which is lending for infrastructure projects.

I think that returning to the fire from the frying pan is not the way for the largest development banks -- particularly if the institutions want to encourage democratic reforms, more efficient governments, and help governments deal with vertical corruption* in government bureaucracies. The way is to set up means for citizens in the poorest countries to directly help their governments manage their societies, which today are at great distance from central government.

US government aid and development policy, including the Millennium Challenge Account, should also pay attention to the vital connection between 311 technology and encouraging democratic government. While micro-projects such as helping banks modernize are based on sound thinking, the focus of US tax dollars for aid to developing nations should be to help citizens in the poorest countries connect directly with their local and federal bureaucracies.

None of this is a pipe dream and all of it can be accomplished quickly, if enough people confront the bald fact that government incompetence is the greatest obstacle to making democracy work in the developing world.

I realize that's a scandalous idea to people who can only think about government in terms of political and economic philosophy. It might get Pundita labeled a wild-eyed anarchist. But the truth is that gross incompetence at the government level and democracy are not supposed to go hand-in-hand. This is on the theory that the collective wisdom represented by the electorate is better at solving problems than a relative handful of elected and appointed officials.

This is not to denigrate representative democracy, which is perfectly fine for setting long-range agendas for how to spend tax money. But in the daily grind of life -- the grind that sees potholes, dead crows, electrical outages and broken fire hydrants -- people expect government to work. If it doesn't, they won't hesitate to reject the philosophy that informs their method of government.

* See To the ramparts, fellow billionaires! Save Russian democracy! for a link to a discussion about vertical corruption.
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