Q&A: Alan Silberberg, L.A.'s Government 2.0 Advocate

Alan Silberberg
Imagine a future in which your city, county, state, and congressional representative are only a Tweet away. A future in which you are not confused by government workings and are able to participate and shape city projects because data and documents are readily available. In this world, all road closures like the recent closing of the I-5 freeway due to snow would be learned about immediately.

This future can be a reality if the basics of Gov 2.0. are implemented. But what is Gov 2.0. and what does it mean to you? We contacted Alan Silberberg, founder of the "un-conference" Gov20LA and a digital government advocate who once worked at the White House and National Archives, to ask him more about what Gov 2.0. means and the upcoming event in February.

To the common person, how would you describe Gov 2.0?
Bringing political power and control of our Governments back into the hands of the people through the use of social media, mobile technology and new ways to use/visualize Government data and information. For too long Governments have been allowed to operate in a semi-obscured environment. Now people are demanding transparency and openness to a degree never seen in history before.

What made you get interested Gov 2.0?
Having been involved in politics and Government for over 20 years, has given me a perspective of the types of changes that people inside and outside of Government have to be able to accept and process. Many parts of our Governments are either broken or aren't working as well as they should, partially due to turf wars and contracting systems set up to protect those at the table and exclude those not at the table. But also, the people play such a key part to this type of large scale change. I have tried to humanize the industry and technology so as to make it more approachable for more people. As a technologist and entrepreneur, it became apparent in 2008 that the Internet and other associated technologies had progressed to a point where we could even conceive of such things as Open Government and Transparency happening on a massive scale, maybe even in real time. As a Dad with small children, I wanted to be able to participate in something that would be meaningful for them, and others as well. So I jumped in, and now see that my own background is uniquely tailored to this new trans-formative reality we are collectively witnessing unfold before us.

What are your favorite Gov 2.0 practices seen here in Southern California?
The Los Angeles Fire Department is a real leader in multiple channel use in social media simultaneously. They have both mobile and online applications that quickly sum up emergency situations with a map, with background information, and further information with regard to closures, evacuation routes, emergency centers and other time critical information. No longer do citizens of Los Angeles need to rely on radio or tv coverage for instant updates on situations that may affect them. Other leaders are the Orange County Transportation Agency which has a full time social media team, and one of the most advanced notification and warning systems for any public transportation agency in the U.S. Other great initiatives include the 311 system and the partnership with CitySourced for reporting problems and repair needs, as well as the migration to the Google "cloud" for the City of LA, which should pave the way for many legacy systems that are costly and outdated to be replaced with more cost effective solutions.

Recently, the city of Copenhagen created an online platform, which allows citizens to share their visions for the city. Do you think that level of openness will be reached in Los Angeles?
It would be sure be great, and needed. The City of Bell is just one example of the glaring need for this type of openness in local government. I question how much certain groups want to see openness and transparency. In a budget tested environment new initiatives like this sometimes feel even more scary to people. Yet that is even more reason to implement. There are many free to low cost idea and discussion platforms which could be used. This is called "ideation" and there are many leading companies that specialize in "listening" platforms.

Can you give us specific examples of "low cost" discussion platforms. How would citizens interact with these platforms?
Bubbleideas is one of my favorites. It is easy to start up and allows the citizens to create their own sets of criteria for questions, answers, discussion and voting on issues. You interact online, or through your mobile device, and the issues are set by the people. Organizations like think tanks, unions, pacs can also be using these same tools, which poses some broader thinking needed on standards for veracity. Other ones include L.A. based Freedom Speaks. There are discussion and idea platforms put out by large companies like Dell too, as well as wide range of ideation companies directed towards varying levels of industry and government.

Tell us about Gov 2.0 LA
We bring together the leading minds in Government, Business, Technology and Academia to discuss the latest trends, collaborate on new initiatives and create new relationships across International, Federal, State and Local governments and the businesses and people who work with them. It is the only major Gov 2.0 un-conference in Southern California and one of the first to institute live streaming for entire event to open it to the World at large. This coming Gov20LA will be held the weekend of February 11-13 2011 in both Pasadena and Santa Monica. We will again be live streaming - this year in both English and Spanish, and into Facebook directly as well to really allow a broad audience besides the in-person audience to participate. We will have participation from Government officials from around the world, as well as a mix of speakers from Hollywood, Silicon Valley as well as Washington, DC and State capitals alike.

What are some of the hot topics and speakers attendees and viewers should look for in Gov20LA's schedule? Which government officials are attending?
To name a few:
British Ambassador John Duncan
Jeanne Holm, Chief Knowledge Architect for JPL
Lovisa A. Williams, U.S. State Department
Dillon Hosier, Israel Consulate, Los Angeles
Jeremy D. Thompson, California State Assembly
20+ more lined up.

Hot topics: Is Gov 2.0 Diplomacy or Propaganda - Mobile implications and case studies for local Government, "BrainJams" the unconference brainstorming sessions - The Los Angeles Consular Corps social media boot camp on Friday Feb 11 will get a lot of
attention, and I anticipate some news to be made by several of our speakers and panelists.

The event will be live streamed both onto the internet through a streaming partner into various channels like Youtube, Livestream, Ustream as well as directly into Facebook through a player/app we created.

What is Gov 2.0's biggest obstacle and what holds politician/government agencies/legislatures back when it comes to using internet tools?
Acceptance of change is often the most difficult thing. People get used to a certain way of doing their jobs. So managing the people quotient in terms of change management and education of what is being asked of people is a really critical element. Politicians and government agencies have a tendency to shy away from real two way engagement with the public. There is a thinking that the more they open themselves up to dialog, the more criticism they face from the public. So many have to overcome their own tendencies first.

How would you define "digital literacy," and what do you think the level of it is in Southern California local governments? Are city/county/state workers being prepared, educated? If so, how?
At the basics it is being able to use mobile phones, and computers to access information and gain understanding of basic things in life. There are more advanced levels with regard to geo-location, advanced information queries and using the myriad of applications available to enhance your life and make it simpler to do many things. I think the level varies widely across local governments in Southern California, and depends partially the socio-economic level of the citizens in that area, as well as interest from the people in Government. I do not see any wide scale digital literacy preparation efforts, however there are ad hoc situations addressing it throughout the State.

Are other cities address this problem? How can L.A. learn from them?
San Francisco is definitely helping to lead the way. but New York City, Seattle, Washington, DC are all leading the charge to try to address these issues. The digital divide is not just one issue, but really a myriad collection of multiple issues lumped
together under one name. As I pointed out, many municipalities are addressing it from different point of view, related to their local population.

What is being done in low income communities to close the digital divide and improve digital literacy so that they could use these tools? How do we make government digital without excluding citizens that don't have online access?
Again it varies from community to community. The State is attempting to make some effort, but the current budget environment does not make it a priority. In many communities the digital divide is between those with high speed internet and those without or with no internet. But in some poorer communities the digital divide may exist in having a smart cell phone and or not having a cell phone at all. I think the question of how to make Government digital without excluding citizens should be at the heart of every single Gov 2.0 initiative, and not just here in California. One way would be to ensure that all new Government applications online can easily be read by even basic cell phones with simple web browsers. Another would be to create computer terminals in libraries that are dedicated to Open Government information in easy to find ways. Finally, one thing to consider is the more we can streamline the backend of Government(s) the more likely that the in person experience will be of a higher level as well.

Will Gov20LA address the problem specifically? Are government employees of low income communities participating in the event?
We will be offering free streaming to open these issues to as broad an audience as possible. Additionally, the Friday event with the Consulates is free to the public (with registration). We hope to encourage and lead the discussion to hopefully address some of these issues, although Digital Divide by itself almost deserves its own un-conference.

What is the biggest change you've seen in the way government interacts with citizens?
In the past three years we have seen a virtual explosion of engagement, data, and government tools being put online and in the mobile format. We have also witnessed experiments with real two way dialog with citizens. This engagement will grow as people become more reliant on it. I also see a high level of experimentation coming out of Governments at all levels, which I think portends for a bright future for more and more innovation seeing it's way to Governments.

What do you hope Gov 2.0 LA will achieve this year?
2010 was the establishing year for Gov20LA and it succeeded beyond anyone's imagination, including my own. It set the tone for several months of dialog and discussion in the Government 2.0 community. In 2011 we are seeing a huge international interest as witnessed by the pre-event we are doing with the Los Angeles Consular Corps. I anticipate a tremendous interest in some of the discussions, especially in the post wiki-leaks environment.It is my hope that we will help to educate and inform, both those in Government and those outside on how we can all be better citizens who can assert more control over our civic lives through initiatives like this.

Learn more about Gov 2.0. and Alan Silberberg: Follow Alan Silberberg on Twitter, check out his website Silberberg Innovations, and listen to his radio show.

Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading