Why the next SF mayor needs to understand open government

San Francisco mayoral candidates at SFOpen 2011, June 16. (photo by GovFresh)

San Francisco mayoral candidates at SFOpen 2011, June 16. (photo by GovFresh)

In August of 1993, San Francisco officially adopted the Sunshine Ordinance, a law that allowed any citizen to request city documents, records, filings or correspondence, attend meetings of any group that meets with the Mayor or city department heads and make any meeting of the governing bodies of certain local, state, regional and federal agencies attended by City representatives public.

We were pioneers in transparency and one of the first cities in the entire country to give our citizens this type of access to our government.

At the time, it was a revolutionary ordinance that would change the way San Franciscans engage with their representatives and inspire similar laws throughout the country.

Fast forward to 2011 where the internet has changed everything about the way we interact with our government and lead our lives.

The brick wall that used to stand between decision makers and the people they serve is eroding and there is an unprecedented level of access to our lawmakers, power brokers and elected officials.

If my parents wanted to hear from their congresswoman or supervisor when they were my age, they would have to write a letter and might wait weeks or even months for a response. In today’s world, we can post a question to an elected official on their Facebook page and hear back the same day. But in the age of Wikileaks, social media, blogging and hackathons, has our local government really caught up?

During my time as an intern in the New Media Office at the Obama White House, I oversaw weekly Facebook live chats between Senior Administration officials and the White House’s over 100,000 Facebook fans. My job was to read the questions coming in through the Facebook feed and send them on to the moderator. There was nothing more thrilling than seeing someone from their home in Ohio or Montana or California ask Ben Rhodes to explain his national security policy in Washington DC and get an answer in real time. That’s open government.

Yet despite the fact that we live in a city that is home to Twitter, Yelp, Zynga and many other leading tech companies our local government hasn’t quite caught up with the private sector we serve. Especially when it comes to using the technology available to us to keep our citizens aware and engaged and allowing them access to the inner workings of our city. That is essential if we want them to feel that they have a stake in the type of government we hope to create.

When President Obama first came into office in 2009, his administration made a commitment to transparency, participation and collaboration with with a pledge to strengthen an open government

Inspired by this effort, Luke Fretwell and Brian Purchia at GovFresh drafted a similar pledge that has already been signed by eight mayoral candidates: Joanna Rees, Phil Ting, Dennis Herrera, Leland Yee, David Chiu, Bevan Dufty, Michela Alioto-Pier, and John Avalos. Though spearheaded by a Gov 2.0 effort, the pledge recognizes that open government isn’t just about technology, as written:

“Open government is the movement to improve government by making government more transparent, participatory, collaborative, accountable, efficient, and effective. Open government will help build the public’s trust and satisfaction in government, will improve government’s delivery of services, and will create new opportunities for innovation.”

The reality is that one of the best possible ways to make government more collaborative, effective, and efficient, is to use the internet and the technologies available to our great city to create the opportunities for innovation that the pledge alludes to.

We’ve fallen behind on this effort and if we want San Francisco to be a leader in technology, it’s about time that we speed back up. The next Mayor of San Francisco will be responsible for making this a reality, so they better understand what open government means and have a plan for how we can enact it.

Does gaming have a place in government?

Part of our research focus at Manor Labs is to discover new ways of communicating and engaging the public. The following two concepts came out of that research.

The new form of social network-based online gaming has become all the rage on popular social networking sites. From a government standpoint, we have determined that these platforms are distractions and subsequently block them from use by our employees. However, let’s propose a new thought; what if we used these tools to educate and engage our public?

Here are two concepts for using game mechanics proactively within government:


The first concept takes Zynga’s FarmVille game model to an entirely new level—the government. We could create an online game with the simplicity of FarmVille, but the mechanics of a real city. There’s currently a social network game called MyTown that is similar to this model, however, it doesn’t accurately encompass concepts like taxation and cost of service within the game model (but it’s a great start). If the government built on their example, we could create a more empowered and educated citizen base.

Let’s say we built an online game that was as engaging as FarmVille, but incorporated real governmental concepts in the process. Which concepts are important to start with?

  • Taxation: Have the gamer adjust taxes but also have it tied to public opinion (similar to Sim City, but less complex).
  • Cost of Service: Have responding to police calls, water line breaks, etc., demonstrate a cost of service for government.

After you establish a sizable base of game players, you could increase the difficulty of the game by incorporating “real” crowdsourced governmental elements within the game model.

For example, Manor Labs is always looking for new ways to get people to review ideas using very simple metric that takes less than 30 seconds to complete. Incorporating this element as a challenge within an online game would allow participants to not only advance within the game, but also help our agency out in the process.

This game concept could be expanded as not only as a new way to teach individuals about government, but as a new way to learn from them.


The second idea I had was to use the Foursquare model of mobile engagement and apply it to government.

About Foursquare:

“Foursquare aims to encourage people to explore their neighborhoods and then reward people for doing so. We do this by combining our friend-finder and social city guide elements with game mechanics – our users earn points, win mayorships and unlock badges for trying new places and revisiting old favorites.”

Building on that model, each agency could allow citizens to “check-in” at various city spots (Library, Fire Station, etc.) and learn more about their community in a fun and engaging format. This could also help open up the door for their participating in other crowdsourced programs like SeeClickFix.


In our ever changing society, civic participation and engagement are becoming more and more difficult to achieve. I believe these elements are more obtainable by incorporating certain elements of game mechanics in the process. These ideas are just two examples of how such mechanics can be utilized to create a more empowered and educated citizen-base.