Thoughts on Google Fiber: What should Madison do? (Part 3 of 3)

One of the advantages of taking forever in actually finishing this set of blog posts is that the “what should Madison do” part got a lot easier, because we’re actually doing some of it.

Obviously, the first concern a month ago was just getting Madison to apply. That seems to be covered.

The next question is, what should be in our application? The answer to that is, “we don’t know.” Frankly, the only people who do know all work at Google, and they’re not saying. Dane101 unhelpfully blasted the Madison application process as “bureaucratic.” That’s not really fair, because for all we know that’s exactly what Google is looking for. In fact, we do know that’s some of what Google is looking for – detailed bureaucratic technical information that the city is in the best position to provide. That’s all that Google has clearly asked for, so in that sense, the bureaucratic answer had better be damned good, because that might be all that counts. (In fact, if you look at the questions Google has actually answered in any detail, they’re all bureaucratic)

Now, Google is also looking for community support, but what exactly does that mean? Certainly, there’s not going to be a community that says “Nah, we don’t want a company to come in and offer a service thats an order of magnitude better than our existing service, on their own risk”. Personally, I think the best thing we can do is to stress the UW as an application driver, and to get consistent messaging between the city, community groups, and citizens who are nominating Madison, but that’s just a wild guess, and I haven’t seen anyone with a factual basis for why their guess is better than mine.

My advice for the process is the same advice you give your friend – you know, the who’s having trouble dating, but you’re pretty sure he or she can and will find the right person with a bit of luck: “just be yourself”. So, Madison, let’s not stress what the application should or shouldn’t have in it, because we don’t know. Trying to read Google tea leaves is pointless. Let’s just put in our application whatever we’d put in if we ourselves were evaluating it, and if it works out, great. Google will either fall in love with us or they won’t, and there’s no point in trying to be someone we’re not.

If we’re not doing something well, it’s that we’re not being very transparent in what our application will look like. There’s information flowing into the city, but not much coming out. We can’t, as a community, come up with a response if we never get to see a draft of what’s being included. If we’re looking for new and innovative ideas for what to include, the best way to encourage people to think of things is to let them see what other people are thinking, so they can riff off of those ideas. We should be completely fine if other cities “steal” our ideas, because ultimately, if they’re good ideas we want to see them implemented. Of course, maybe this will all change in a few days with the community meeting, but I don’t get the impression that the city is looking to make that meeting a two-way street.

I don’t want to say that there’s been failed leadership here, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s been muddled leadership from the city. Who, actually, is in charge? The IT director? Mark Clear? The Mayor should have put Rachel Strauch-Nelson as the lead on this project, because she does a good job of communicating, and has the time and authority over city staff to do so, unlike Alders.

This process has exposed some what I think are pretty serious weaknesses in how we respond as a community to these sorts of opportunities. For one, we have organizations that are supposed to jump at these sorts of things. Where the heck is THRIVE in all of this? They should be organizing a community response. The Economic Development Commission discussion was embarrassing. I once wanted to be on the EDC, but now having sat in on a couple of meetings, and read Brenda’s recap of others, I have to wonder, what is the point? The EDC doesn’t strike me as actually accomplishing anything.

The most impressive efforts have been by the local high-tech community, which is trying to organize itself to be able to respond, and is leading the charge with the Facebook page – but there’s that ambiguity in leadership again. We think we need citizen action to pull this off, but citizens need some coordination to make it happen. This is where government can and should play a role – what Tim O’Reilly is talking about when he says “government is a convener and an enabler–ultimately, it is a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.” The government is legally authorized and empowered to bring people together. That’s the broader picture of Government 2.0: It’s not just the government providing crime data so people can build Google Maps mashups, it’s envisioning a new way of thinking about government, where citizens create what they need. It doesn’t replace elected officials – it’s completely compatible with a republican form of government, with elected representatives who call on the citizen experts to assist.

I strongly suspect that some of the vocabulary might be a little bit different, but the Gov 2.0 underlying principals of citizen participation are already the norm in Madison and in Wisconsin, thanks to progressive ideas from the beginning of the 20th century. It’s other cities where they are just now discovering the value of active citizen engagement that makes Gov 2.0 so exciting for so many people. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are some twists that we haven’t considered, and we certainly need the technology upgrades to bring those principals into the 21st century. One of the things I want to do while I’m out here in DC for the next few months is to meet up with the local Gov 2.0 folks here, and bring that back with me to Madison to get a “Madison Gov2.0” group going. One of the results of the Google Fiber submission is going to be a collection of people who on March 26th are sitting around saying “now what?”. If Madison gets Google Fiber, or if it doesn’t, we shouldn’t let this group scatter back to the wind. Technologically, I think it’d be fun to get a some people together and say “let’s stop waiting and just build something for Madison” – maybe a new iphone bus tracker app, or a decent iphone problem reporter, or the start of an open 311 system. From a civic engagement perspective, I think it’s part of the way to have a larger conversation about what we want out of our citizens in governing Madison.


4 comments so far

  1. Kyle on

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  2. Nathan Lustig on

    Great post! Probably the best overview I’ve seen so far. Thanks for highlighting the Capital Entrepreneurs effort. Check out, which is the site we’ve created out of the initial CE effort. It’s still a work in progress, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

  3. Lexa on

    Your posting really strgiahtened me out. Thanks!

  4. Shaibaz on

    if you run into laura could you please tell her my gartdfanher with alzheimers sends his love. and then maybe spit on her or something? thanks.

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