The future of civic engagement is here (so far it’s not pretty)

Pub date January 30, 2014
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

Last week, we wrote about San Francisco City Hall’s foray into “civic innovation,” to foster greater governmental openness through web-based technology.

We spotlighted the OpenGov Foundation’s partnership with the city to upload the entire municipal code to a website,, to make local laws readily accessible for anyone (regardless of city of residency, apparently) to comb through, offer comments, or suggest legislative tweaks.

Sup. Mark Farrell trumpeted the open city code website as a great way to incorporate citizen feedback to improve government. It earned a mention the San Francisco Chronicle and other news outlets after Farrell proposed doing away with a silly law that effectively bans bicycle storage in garages, prompted by a comment left on

In and of itself, the idea is not bad – transparency and openness are laudable goals.

That being said, judging by the quality of “civic engagement” happening so far, there’s a long road ahead before this particular experiment in digital democracy takes us anyplace we’d like to go.

There’s the guy who rails against the law about curbing the wheels of your car when parking on an incline, who wants it known, sir, that “I resent and object to getting a near $70 fine for not curbing the wheels on my 2011 Prius.” (He argues that the grade of the incline the rule applies to only made sense in a bygone era, when parking brakes and manual transmissions were more likely to fail.)

Other brilliant insights from cantankerous “innovators”: What do we need San Francisco General Hospital for, anyway?

Another comment calls for writing a new law: “I think news racks should be outlawed as people leave garbage around them, graffiti and vandalize them all the time. I have never seen a group of news boxes / racks that were in a good shape anywhere in the city. They just make the city ugly and cluttered.”

I know, I know – this civic innovation experiment is still in a test phase. And after all, anyone is free to comment, and more stimulating ideas could still be on the horizon. 

But still. This is what citizen empowerment through technology looks like, in San Francisco?