Designing Civic Information Flows

Cities have critical information needs.

To reach their potential, communities require efficient information exchange among multiple stakeholders. But with communication channels increasingly fragmented, individual entities struggle to get their information to the right audiences in a timely manner.

This creates a reality where citizens’ expertise, labor, and capital are infrequently used, let alone optimized, in serving the needs of their communities. There are several reasons for this. One is a lack of meaningful opportunities to engage on issues that serve citizens’ self interest — people find it hard to understand how to make a difference in the issues they’re interested in. Even if citizens do try and input on a certain issue, there is often a lack of feedback. Without worthwhile returns on investment, the chances of future civic engagement drop. Finally, there is a lack of information on how to self-organize to solve civic problems, and few resources to turn enthusiasm into meaningful action.

On the other side of the coin, the delivery of public services is also an inefficient process. Knowledge about public services often exists in many sources, each one of them incomplete. This makes it difficult for citizens with little time or content literacy to access the services they need. A central authority on accessing public services could help.

There is also a third element to this equation. Civic institutions like school boards, political offices, and public trust companies also face like challenges. They spend their scarce resources promoting their services to citizens with highly fragmented collective attention. Collecting community input is time consuming, and often yields too few results or the least productive individuals engaging with the process. Public leaders lack independent information on the performance of the bureaucracies they manage, which reduce accountability and thus effectiveness.

Likewise, civil society groups such as faith communities and advocacy groups have difficulty finding citizens that can support them in their community service needs. They’re out there, they’re just tough to find because there are no widely recognized central channels to facilitate the exchange. There’s little ability to match the self-interest of citizens with opportunities to improve civic life. When innovative new services or programs are proposed, there’s little way to efficiently seek support from community members with a personal stake in seeing these programs succeed. An effective information exchange mechanism could create a long-tail market mechanism that helps niche groups find support from and for the niche interests they serve.

One possible solution

To address these challenges, we recently put forward the idea of a new Civic Information Exchange, facilitated and curated by local public broadcasters. Leveraging the credibility, reach, and resources of local public media, the Exchange would be a trusted, reliable, and moderated environment for the information transactions of local communities. As the key hub for civic discourse, the Exchange could serve as a transformational model to address the current information shortcomings of communities. The image above is graphic that breaks it down.

Public service providers would use the Exchange to market their services and solicit moderated public feedback and ratings on service delivery. Civil society groups, utilizing the Exchange’s wide distribution, could better match their resource needs with the citizens who have a vested stake in their success. By better aligning these ‘long tail’ opportunities, the Exchange will inspire new models for community funding of local projects that serve the public interest. Recognizing that public sector budgets are ever-shrinking, this would also allow local leaders to turn to the public to fund innovative approaches to solving local governance problems.

Public broadcasters are uniquely qualified to serve as conveners, facilitators, and managers of the Exchange. Public broadcasters already enjoy strong levels of brand credibility in local communities. Carried over to the Exchange, this would provide the necessary levels of trust to encourage civic participation. The editorial experience of public broadcasters would allow them to sift through the range of data coming through the Exchange; public media can curate and promote information worthy of public action or comment. Similarly, their deep connections to local populations would help broadcasters spot and surface community needs. Finally, their built-in mass distribution capacity provides access to a large enough sample of communities’ populations to make the Exchange a relevant marketplace for civic information transactions.

The media landscape will continue to shift, and it will be increasingly harder for small public media organizations to retain and grow audiences with only traditional news, information, and entertainment content. They will need editorial models that are more closely aligned with the unmet needs of the communities they serve. Playing the role of facilitator, moderator, and host to the Exchange is just such a vision for public broadcasters.

By effectively linking disaggregated interests and providing long-tail opportunity matching, the Civic Information Exchange model has the potential to revitalize communities, empower citizens to self-organize for civic problem solving, increase accountability of public institutions, and encourage new innovation through improved funding models.

Futher reading.