Government as a Connector

Doug MatthewsDoug Matthews is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts in local innovation. 


I've often joked that I didn't have a choice in entering public service—my father was a local police chief and my mother was an emergency room nurse. My first job was as a life guard, where I also taught swim lessons at the city recreation center. My high school scholarship essays invariably turned to politics, service, and governance in America.

So when it came time for college I did the next logical thing: I studied advertising and public relations. That's right. I abandoned all of my leanings to public service, thinking that the only way for me to exercise my creative side was to abandon that path and pursue something else entirely. I had the same unfortunate images that many do of the "government bureaucrat," destined for a life of mind-numbing rules, regulations, and protocols that would leave the most creative soul a robotic image of oneself by the age of 30.

But something interesting happened along the way. I started my career in public service working as an intern for the Orange County Government, and I discovered a whole group of people that were genuinely working to change the way government worked. Back then, it was the "reinventing government" crowd. Soon, I realized that what I thought would be temporary employment while I found something bigger was actually the very beginnings of the "something bigger" I was meant to work on.

Almost 20 years later, there's something very significant and palpable happening in government today at all levels. And I'm lucky enough to be in a community—Austin, Texas—that is ripe for rethinking government's role in our lives.

At the 2011 Code for America Summit, there was quite a bit of discussion about "government as a platform." I had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary people doing extraordinary things in local government. That included Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood in Boston, Jeff Friedman in Philadelphia, Jay Nath in San Francisco, and a host of others.

Much of the talk has been about the value of opening up government data, and creating an environment for development of open-source solutions to the challenges of governing. But to me, that's one piece of the puzzle. "Government as a platform" is giving way to "government as a connector." That's where I've found my sweet spot.

A few years ago, Daniel Pink wrote about the right-brain revolution in his book, “A Whole New Mind.” One of the cornerstones of his modern brand of leadership is the "connector" – those who see the connectivity and opportunity between seemingly unrelated ideas. There's a unique place for connectors in government –finding and fostering the nexus where government, entrepreneurs, social service agencies, and the average citizen can connect to make a better world.

In Austin, we're just beginning that journey. In the past two years, we launched one of the largest municipal open source websites in the nation, including a portal for open data, and began our partnership with Code for America. That partnership has created new tools for local wildfire preparedness, started a conversation about improving systems that support animal welfare and began something that might be even more important –a conversation between private citizens, local technology groups, and the City about how we can collaborate to improve the way we serve the public.

Anyone who has heard folks like Jen Pahlka or Todd Park speak knows that there's a new brand of thinking making its way through government at all levels, and I'm just happy to be doing what I can to be part of the movement. 

Doug Matthews is the Chief Communications Director of Austin, Texas

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