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How civic engagement is changing in Philadelphia

The ways that civic engagement is changing in Philadelphia was the focus of a short keynote I gave to help kickoff the Penn Public Policy Challenge at the Fels Institute of Government on Friday.

I focused on the public-private efforts that have been a defining part of the civic-minded technology community I’ve covered in Philadelphia for the last years. I spoke to about 40 mostly Penn graduate students who will be participating in the competition over the next few months. Find my notes below.

Three big concepts that have shaped civic engagement of today:

  1. The web heightened an expectation for delivery of services and transparency and the ripple effects of related technologies have made this far easier to happen.
  2. A recession helped bring about entrepreneurship as the ideal.
  3. A generation of Millennials are toying with mission and urbanism and impact.

Three local examples that failed:

  1. Independence and Policy: Budget Bulldog removes employee salary (coming back in December, we hear) and PhillyAddress.com threatened with cease and desist because these ideas lacked full independence and did not fit into a strong policy.
  2. Too big of a problem: crowdfunding for the School District (half of the money came from the city) because people felt the idea was immovable.
  3. Lack of Specificity and Ownership: Change by Us from Code for America never fully launched with real users because there wasn’t a clear call to action.

Three local examples that succeeded:

  1. Community and Informal Leadership: OpenAccessPhilly and Philly Rising were able to launch efforts like OpenDataPhilly because of flexibility and strong community buy in.
  2. Minimum Viable Product (Lean Startup methodology) and Stewardship: A SEPTA app launched long after they released their data.
  3. Follow and empower: Philadelphia Police social media tips program is one of its highlights.

Three examples I’m waiting to see:

  1. Partnerships: FastFWD social enterprise incubator: will its stakeholders strengthen or kill it?
  2. StartupPHL: will a modest seed fund attract more or was it going to happen anyway?
  3. KEYSPOT: Can you build a cohesive network without the money to back it?

Big Question of Transition: Will any of this be institutionalized or will it die when current Mayor Nutter’s administration transitions out? That’s the question for students and civic leaders: can our work last beyond our volunteer efforts in them?

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