Chris Vein, the CIO for the City and County of San Francisco, recently predicted that social media services may displace government-run websites for many citizen interactions. Chris has played a key role in bringing access to city services to San Francisco's Facebook Page and other sites. I talked with him to... learn more about the role social media can play in local government services and citizen engagement.
A lot of people think of technology as an expensive investment. How are you trying to save money and use technology to provide better services?
It really is [about] the introduction of self-service and [that is] one of the things that we have done with Facebook. Citizens don't have time to come down to city hall, they don't have time to sit and see processes that waste their time; they become very impatient and that's how government gets a bad name.
So it's really trying to figure out ways to make those services available any time, any place and make them cheaper to provide. And so when we do things like allow citizens to pay their parking tickets through a Facebook application, you are allowing citizens to be in more control of their interaction with the government rather than government in control of the interactions.
Some city services could never be provided over the Internet, but what are some of the surprising ways you have been able to use technology?
I think virtually everything can be made more efficient with technology. I think yes, it would be difficult to make garbage collection go away by automating it. However, what you can do is provide more information to citizens on when garbage day is coming and what the parking laws are on particular streets so that people don't get tickets when the garbage truck comes along.
Now that's bad for ticket revenue. But on the other side from a citizen's perspective, we are combining a bunch of technologies in order to allow the citizens to be more in control of their lives and how they interact with the city...in ways that make life easier.
So it's not just about the services themselves being provided online, it's also about the access to information of the services that helps them become more smooth or efficient.
Exactly. That's also behind all of our efforts [to make] government transparent and hopefully accountable by talking to government agencies and finding out what data sets they have [and] putting them out there.... And it really is an opportunity for the average citizen to have access to the very core data elements that we use to make our decisions.
So from a transparency and accountability standpoint, if we are moving in a direction or taking an interpretation of specific data in a way that public doesn't agree with, they can come up with their own interpretation and challenge this..using social media like the city's Facebook Page.
What has surprised you about your Facebook Page? Is it its size, the kinds of discussions happening on it? Who is responsible for your Facebook Page within your office or within the city?
[We] keep a hands-off approach to it. We have no rules about what can be talked about. Certainly, we have rules around etiquette and those kinds of things. But, it really is an opportunity to put issues that are interesting to citizens out there and let the citizens discuss [issues] with each other and with the city....
I think the best reactions that we get are about quality-of-life issues. Obviously, in a city like San Francisco, there are many sides to that issue and, therefore, many opinions on that issue. When we put those quality-of-life issues out there that are of real importance to the citizens, that's where we see the most use and the best use. I think that's why we have so many people out there, because we are willing to put those tough, thorny political issues out there and let the community talk about them and see where they are....
Many jurisdictions are still looking at social media outlets as something that has to be contained. My belief is that social media and sites like Facebook and Twitter are just new or relatively new portals into the City and County of San Francisco, and they're just like a telephone or just like a fax machine or walk-in [counter]. These sites are ways that people are accessing different services, and we have to get ahead of it.
It seems like that's a discussion that not just your city is having in the County of San Francisco. What advice would you give to other cities about how to take advantage of these tools?
The first thing is don't be afraid of these new applications because our experience is that yes, you always have outliers, but the vast majority of information that's being exchanged is useful, it's positive and you may not always like it, but it does bring a whole new set [of people] into the legislative process that you've never had before.
The second [piece of] advice is to use it as a tool, use it as a way to understand what your constituents are concerned about and what they want from you. Take that information and start building your policies around it, because it is such an efficient way of gauging public support or public desire around the issues.
Third, I think you need somebody who is willing to be in a pothole, if you will, someone who is willing to always talk to everyone about how important these channels like Facebook are to not only the citizens but also to the government and how [they can be] used to make efficient changes to government services.
Adam Conner, an associate manger on Facebook's public policy team, can't wait to be able to pay his parking tickets on Facebook.