A call for a new kind of town hall

Public participation in South Kingstown (RI, USA) town and school governance is negligible. Most public meetings, like this week's joint town council and school committee meeting formally opening consideration of the 2009 & 2010 budget, have only a handful of people present. Too often there is no one present.

A little consideration shows that this is to be expected: The current means of public participation were designed around the needs and wants of a very different time then our own. The town council chamber is itself a monument to these needs and wants. It is a physical community gathering spot. Other community gathering spots include the newspaper (for public notices) and the town hall bulletin board. Even the early evening meeting times accommodate a past when the man of the house could leave his children to the care of his (house)wife in the comfort of his home.

This is not the world I live nor the world of most of the people I know. Both parents work, care for the children, and do housework. Sometimes they work in staggered shifts so that at least one of them is at home with the children. And when the children have gone to bed work picks up again for another hour or two: The "mommy work hours" of 9 AM to 3 PM and then 8 PM to 10 PM.

We also communicate differently. We use e-mail and voice-mail. We chat via IM (instant messaging) or texting on our phones. We discuss every kind of subject in online groups. We share our lives with our friends through our blogs and Facebook "walls." And when we do gather in person we do so by "homing in" on a place, a time, and who will attend via a ever tightening circle of short messages over time.

This pattern is not going away. It is deepening. Just as the town council chamber was build to support participation we need now to build a different and effective mechanism for today.

We need our public documents, meetings, and other artifacts online. We need to be notified about additions. We need to be notified when they have changed. We need to be able to comment upon these online and have this commentary considered. These new tools of participation are not ancillary. They are as primary as the existing ones.

Doing this is not a great technical challenge. The software development industry routinely uses these tools everywhere and everyday. Doing this does not require a great operational cost. The tools are free, the storage and computational costs minuscule, and the support costs reasonable. The most challenging cost is to the school's and town's processes. It is not that more work will be required of officials and staff but that the work is done differently. The difference results in making visible to online tools the workings of the school and the town.

I ask all of you to please contact the school committee and town council and ask that they initiate the changes necessary to enable citizen participation in our time. Now is a very good time for change.