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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Idea Storm

It is amazing to what extent some people will bitterly resist change, even when that change actually represents a wide highway of expansion and profit. For example, a new study by the respected Norwegian School of Management demonstrates that, contrary to years of hysterical claims by the recording industry, people who download music from free file-sharing sites actually buy ten times as much music than others.

The current and coming local finance crises offer opportunities to employ technologies that not only reduce costs but free up resources that can start to clear wish lists.

Our stores are more crowded than ever at 11:30 p.m., but many government offices in this county have already been closed for nearly seven hours. Enough.

A few years ago, Netflix offered a million dollars to anyone out there who could design a system to improve their system of rating DVDs by 10 percent. 17,000 submissions came in from the public. Dell Computers, once almost crippled by service policies that turned off its own customers in droves, turned itself around by embracing customers and their ideas. Several of Dell’s current models incorporate major design changes which came directly from civilians at its “IdeaStorm” website, the content of which is completely customer-driven.

This kind of thing is sometimes called a “brain gang,” and it’s something more and more private companies are employing as a cost effective way of drawing on the talents of a community to solve problems.

Our local government units, all of them, can actively engage citizens, neighborhood by neighborhood, in improving the delivery of services. In this model, your village web site isn’t some online bulletin board, isn’t a postcard from smiling elected officials, isn’t just a complaint center, isn’t just a way of conducting simple online transactions. It becomes something organic and something interesting, instead of something static and scripted.

To press the issue with local governments there, a private coalition in Great Britain established FixMyStreets.com. This is an integrated citizen-driven system that allows people to report, view and discuss any kind of local problems, which are automatically forwarded to appropriate local governments. Thousands of issues have come up, from graffiti to broken sidewalks. Resolutions are tracked, and there are follow-up reports. Being a private site, some local governments resent the competition with their own web sites, but the point is being made by the general success of the venture. Now the political parties in Britain are competing for ideas on how to best bring the creativity and special skills of citizens together to solve problems. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and probably the next Prime Minister, has declared that use of the Internet to break the “power and control” of “well-meaning public officials” will be a top theme in coming elections.

Now Cisco, the networking and communications technology giant, is heavily promoting its work on fixmystreets.com here in the United States: “Don’t wait for a problem—or worse, a pattern of problems —to get out of hand. Encourage people to help you identify those problems fast.” Cisco has made the computer code “open source,” which means it’s free and any Long Island government can start setting up a system like it within minutes of reading this.

Imagine how many staff resources can be better deployed fixing problems. The public will find them for you. Could the number of complaints become overwhelming? No problem. The public could be asked to prioritize the order in which different problems are addressed.

This is a new way of thinking for Long Island leaders, and it’s bold, risky and maybe dangerous to those who think certain ways. There would be points of serious resistance, the biggest of which is the sense of a loss of top-down control by managers, commissioners and elected officials. It is also true that some people might suspect that a lot of functions can be centralized or regionalized while actually increasing the “local control” that was so important to previous generations.

Today, what residents want more than anything else is value for their tax dollar and efficiency.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net