Using Collaborative Technologies for Civic Accountability

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Tom Tresser
Passionate Strategies

Citizens are attempting to come together in communities around America and the world to solve community problems. At the same time community organizers lack effective technologies to help them bring people together and to assist in their efforts to hold governing bodies accountable and responsive to citizen input. We need more collaboration among citizens and more transparency for our governmental agencies.


There are dozens of citizen action organizations working in America to bring forth local people into civic life and to solve social and economic problems, The Industrial Areas Foundation is one such group which has been promoting civic engagement for over 50 years (see The IAF has helped create over 50 local and regional citizen action organizations. These organizations are coalitions of organizations, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, labor unions and community-based groups. Over 2 million families are members of the constituent groups involved in this work. There are other networks supporting civic engagement, such as the Gamaliel Foundation (see


A technology-enabled approach to the work of these organizations offers a number of intriguing possibilities. Often, these organizations are working in disadvantaged neighborhoods where Internet connection and PC ownership tends to lag behind communities where the residents have more income and have attained higher levels of education. Community organizers who use technology to achieve their goals have the additional opportunity to introduce new tools to their constituents and help them use and master these tools. I am encouraging social and community change practitioners to build technology strategies and tools into their work and to help their allies and citizen-leaders master technology in order to achieve organizing goals.


I propose to create two related enterprises for community technology applications for community organizing, First, a web-based project called "We Are Watching." This is a collaborative tool for allowing teams to monitor government activities and analyze governmental budgets. The online work would be supported by offline training. "We Are Watching" would be template-based and could be customized for any jurisdiction. It would include reporting, webcasts and spreadsheet tools. Citizen teams would be assigned various beats" covering government meetings, attending and exposing fundraising events and interviews. The budget analysis would work like this. Using the Chicago city budget as an example, the lead organizers must first post the budget online as HTML and work with participating organizations to identify and populate a series of working groups assigned to review a specific department. This team is coached by a project volunteer versed in government budgeting and has access to an online help center. The team meets (online) and assigns tasks. Essentially, each team must contact the official in charge of their assigned government unit and interview them about their budget. The team eventually posts their analysis, questions and recommendations on the project page. In this way the entire city budget will be scrutinized and annotated. All teams will be invited to a Peoples Budget Congress where spokespeople for each team will make a brief statement. Additional components of the "We Are Watching" project would be graphical interface databases that would allow users to easily see which groups gave how much money to their elected representatives. The second component of this project would be a hardware and ISP provisioning service that would supply participating organizations with PCs and Internet access at reduced rates. In Chicago, we have an IAF-affiliate, United Power for Action and Justice, which has over 350 member organizations. These member organizations are mostly religious institutions with anywhere from 200 to 2,000 families as congregants. I could imagine a very robust business supplying PCs, access, training and support to all these families.

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