The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 6, 2010

DAVID KNEPPER | Unleashing in our region the power of today’s technology

David Knepper

“That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.”

– Thomas Jefferson



Claims of keeping pace with newer technological advances are grossly exaggerated by school district and local municipal officials who say they are on the “cutting edge” of technology.

The time has come for them to redirect their energies and to shift the focus from website development and online services to new social networking technologies to significantly improve interconnectivity between themselves and their constituents.  

Deploying the second generation of new technologies will enable local officials – if they have a shift in their mind-set – to seize the opportunity to improve dramatically a climate for increasing interaction and participation within our communities and region.

If this is left undone, this communication gap will continue to widen, leaving local officials scrambling to retain their credibility, and their jobs.

“Business as usual” is not a comforting crutch – it’s foolish complacency,” according to Craig Chavez, Knowledge Network intern of the International City/County Management Association.

The so-called “conventional wisdom” held by some local officials is that when the public is not present for a vote on a pay raise, tax hike or a new building project, then the public must support the officials’ decisions.

However, some would argue just the opposite, for example, when announcements for extra or special meetings appear only in the legal sections of newspapers.

Let’s face it, how many people can come to public meetings during the day, when they have other obligations or responsibilities?   

So where can this revolution in technology be found?

It’s here and it’s right under our noses!

Ask teenagers and they will tell you that the “force” lies in their I-Pods.

Even the president in his first week in office felt this loss when he had to hand over to the Secret Service his own I-Pod. 

“Someday” is now that someone walking down the street or sitting in his living room can “tune in” to the proceedings of the local school board, the borough council or township supervisors. Even to participate online in a public discussion on controversial issues such building a new high school or constructing a new sewage system, without the hassle of attending hearings or to be bothered by mailed or phone surveys. 

So-called “smart” schools and municipalities have already transitioned to e-mail from mailed information letters, survey forms and newsletters. 

But, the next wave of technology, “Web 2.0,” is on the cyber horizon and will profoundly change the social media movement.

Web 2.0 is commonly associated with web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the worldwide web. 

A Web 2.0 site allows its users to interact with each other as contributors to the website’s content, in contrast to websites where users are limited to the passive viewing of information that is provided to them.

Examples of Web 2.0 include web-based communities, hosted services, web applications, social-networking sites, video-sharing sites, wikis, blogs, mashups and folksonomies. (Wikipedia.)

“Local government can use Web 2.0 applications to their advantage as an efficient and effective technology tool and demonstrates value for community and digital inclusion,” Alan Shark, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Institute, says.

Teens today are already constantly, often to the chagrin of their parents, communicating using Web 2.0 architecture with their I-Pads and I-Pods to text and to visualize in real time.

When they ultimately mature into adults, they will have the same expectations but with a different set of priorities, including the capability to play an ever-increasing role in shared governance with schools and local governments.

In order to share information in more accessible ways, school and municipal officials will continue to be challenged to find more efficient ways and to keep the public better informed in order to improve the quality of public discussion and debate on critically important issues. 

Some communities are already exploring the potential of Internet social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Blogs to provide new ways to reach the public, according to Brian Moura, assistant city manager for the city of San Carlos, Calif.

Where do we begin to explore the feasibility of implementing a public interconnectivity model with the capability of improving transparency through social interaction among schools and municipal officials and the public?

I would suggest that we look no further than Concurrent Technologies Corp., based here in the Johnstown area. CTC has and continues to express a strong commitment to contributing time and resources to help make the communities they serve better places to live. 

We know that with the support and assistance of key community representatives from our schools and municipalities, including our state and federal elected representatives, the task to build “high performing governments” is within our reach. 

Recently, the Pens Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania prepared a report for local governments that are beginning to experiment with social media.

I would strongly recommend downloading a copy at http://www.fels.upenn.edu/news/making-most-social-media.

Certainly, the report is applicable to schools as well.

Finally, the need is apparent and the timing could not be better to showcase our region as clearly a leader in innovative solutions to make “every man feel himself a part of his government.” 

Thomas Jefferson, were he alive today, would be proud to call us his “neighbor and a friend of government and education.”

David A. Knepper is president of Allegheny Development Group LLC and is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears the first Sunday of each month.