City in a Box: Municipal Makeover Comes to Texas

Today I am in Manor, Texas (pop. 6,500), to celebrate the burgeoning open government movement underway in America’s towns and cities. Manor is embracing the Obama Administration's vision of creating effective and efficient government that fosters transparency and innovation. By using new technology to enable open and collaborative ways of working, government—whether federal, state, or local—can deliver better citizen services with fewer resources.

Manor, Texas, is endeavoring to transform itself into an innovative, efficient, and well-functioning bedroom community of Austin by rebuilding its institutions from the ground up with the help of free or cheap digital tools. (I was intrigued by what the town was up to and blogged about it last year.) Manor has become so renowned for its creative use of technology that it has become something of a tourist attraction—bringing in visitors, for example, who can use their cell phones to scan the pictographic bar codes (known as QR codes) posted on historic sites and get free, automated guided tours. The city also now runs “See, Click, Fix”—a free customer service platform that enables citizens to report pot holes, downed trees, and traffic lights in need of repair—a service that has heretofore only existed in large cities like New York and San Francisco. And Manor runs Spigit, an innovation platform through which it invites citizens to come up with ideas for running the town better. Members of the public whose ideas are implemented win prizes such as the privilege of riding along with the sheriff for a day.

Alexis De Tocqueville observed about 19th century America that: "In towns it is impossible to prevent men from assembling, getting excited together and forming sudden passionate resolves. Towns are like great meeting houses with all the inhabitants as members. In them the people wield immense influence over their magistrates and often carry their desires into execution without intermediaries.” This can-do spirit is in evidence today in the “Municipal Makeover” underway in Manor.

And the movement is spreading. City officials from Manor and volunteers from around the country, for example, have “adopted” De Leon in northern Texas, in order to provide it with a makeover of its own. Instead of a new wardrobe and makeup, De Leon gets a “City in a Box”—a package that includes digital citizen participation tools and assistance implementing a new website, ideation platform, records management system, and more. The conference taking place today and tomorrow will feature concrete “how to” lessons from that makeover.

As Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, recently wrote, “cities are the world’s experimental laboratories.” And what’s taking place in Texas is just one example of the new efforts under way to build tools, train and organize volunteers, and design programs for institutional innovation at the local level. Among them:

  • Open Plans, a nonprofit technology organization focused on local open government. The group coordinates the multi-city Open311 initiative and supports open source mapping tools for local communities.
  • Civic Commons, a nonprofit helping cities and states share code effectively. It is working to adapt existing codes—such as those in use by San Francisco's Enterprise Address System, the Federal government's IT Spending Dashboard, and the National Archives Federal Register tools—available to others for use in and by their local communities.
  • CityCamp is an “unconference” focused on innovation for municipal governments and community organizations. The inaugural CityCamp in Chicago in January 2010 brought together over 100 people from local governments, community organizations, developers, and journalists from across the United States, Canada, and the U.K. There are now CityCamps scheduled for London,  San Francisco, St. Petersburg, Russia, the "Front Range" cities of Colorado, and Boston, with more expected to come online soon.


One thing that is neat about these approaches is that they are largely scalable. For example, the CIOs of the seven largest cities in America (informally known as the "Gang of 7") have been convening every two weeks to exchange best practices for municipal innovation. And now a World E-Governments Organization of Local and City Governments has started as well. Cities from Amsterdam to Vladivostok are also gathering to identify strategies for innovating in the way that they work.

One exciting advance in this area that I will be talking about today in Texas is a new online professional community-of-practice site for those who want to learn about Municipal Makeovers, get involved, and learn how to implement these or other tools in their towns. Known as BetaCities, it is an online community for local government employees and strategic partners, whose mission is to establish action-based starting points for local government agencies wanting to be cities of continuous self-improvement.

In this difficult economic time when institutions need to do more with less, the Obama Administration celebrates local innovators who champion open and collaborative ways of making hometowns more efficient and responsive to the needs of their citizens.

Beth Noveck is Deputy CTO for Open Government in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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