21st Century Town Meetings?

How might the town meeting tradition incorporate 21st century technology? Should government or private groups take the lead on using web 2.0 technologies to facilitate civic participation? What technologies are most promising in terms of facilitating citizen involvement and collaboration?

These were a few of the questions tackled by the panel on civic engagement at yesterday's Massachusetts Digital Government Summit yesterday. I was joined on the panel by:

Jim Caralis, founder of the website OpenMass.org, a site that pulls data from government sites, media and the blogosphere to present well-organized content on state politics, with opportunities to take action.

Daniel Bevarly, of Neighborhood America, a company that develops software to facilitate government agency collaboration and public input. One notable effort of their company was designing the program to seek public input on the design of two major 9/11 memorials.

Brad Blake, Director of New Media and Online Strategy for the Patrick Adminstration, moderated the panel. I met Brad when I was invited by Woburn resident and tech entrepreneur Michael de la Maza to join a brainstorming session with Brad and a handful of others about ways web 2.0 technology can support civc engagement. We're working on a paper coming out of that session, stay tuned for that.

There are no easy answers to these questions. It did seem clear that government needs to do more to embrace these new technologies, but that there is a thicket of challenging issues that must be sorted out as it does. Meanwhile, there is certainly a key role for nongovernmental efforts such as those we panelists are involved in, as we are able to move quickly and with less restraint to deploy technology that facilitates civic engagement.

The paper I mentioned we're working on will address 3 areas that seem fruitful to focus on at this point: 1) using technology to faciltate input into the "Readiness" education and workforce development long-term plannning effort underway; 2) "setting data free" with mashups that make it easier for citizens to combine government data in interesting ways, and 3) using technology to facilitate disaster preparedness planning.