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


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?


That the city has some quirky residents?

Or that the feedback from a genuinely interactive process isn't the same as the cozy me-too progressive party line that you get when you have your "town hall" meetings full of like-minded lib-bots?

We did elect Ed Lee and that should tell you that most city residents are not kneejerk ideological socialists, however much you might wish that were the case. The people don't want a revolution - they just want things to work a little better.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 30, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

So the Guardian, the Local Newspaper Of Progressive Record that curates its comment section with such judicious aplomb now criticizes for the quality of its comments?

I bet the trolls will Get Right On this one, huh?

Posted by marcos on Jan. 30, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

progressive hive mentality and/or are organized by City Family groups like Non Profit Inc or the Unions. Please be respectful and adhere to our rules and regulations designed to celebrate and encourage our gorgeous diversity!

Posted by Guest on Jan. 30, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

"Non Profit Inc or the Unions"

reveals northern california republican tendencies. bet you vote right wing eh? white male? yessir!

Posted by Guestagainstphilistines on Jan. 30, 2014 @ 10:22 pm

anyone race have to do with anything?

Posted by guest on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 12:29 am

The nonprofits serve as a buffer between popular demands to stop corporate dominated government and the unions are incapable of doing much but negotiating give backs.

In both cases, nonprofits and unions are in place to ease the transition to complete corporate dominated government. If all you've got is to dismiss any rational analysis of the roles these bureaucracies play in disempowering popular demands on government, then you're part of the problem.

Might I suggest you go back to watching Rachel Maddow and the neoliberal Democratic Party apologist mouthpieces?

Posted by marcos on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 8:00 am

She's like an intelligent version of Caitlin or a slightly less butch version of Debra Walker.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 01, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

Good morning,

We're the civic software developers behind the beta version of While it may be easy to randomly pick out suggestions from your neighbors, poke fun and judge the entire endeavor by them, think about the citizens making these comments. They are using a brand new way to tell their elected officials what they think, and hold the city government accountable. If your suggestion to the city government was plucked out for this story, wouldn't you say, "It might not seem like an important issue to you, but this is something that affects my life and I think it should be fixed. I have a right to share my opinions."?

And if you're a San Francisco citizen who has never had the ability to tell government what you think should be changed, and are looking to improve your city by doing so, wouldn't you say, "This website seems like a much easier way for me to connect with my city government, but I won't use it if my suggestions are going to be publicly ridiculed."?

We've got some great things in store for the site, and hope to continue our work making San Francisco city government more open, accountable and responsive to the needs of residents. And we'd love your feedback, constructive criticism, ideas for features you'd like to see added, anything. Our email is sayhello [at] opengovfoundation [dot] org and we'd love to hear from you.

Thank you,
Seamus, Leili, Chris and Bill
(The OpenGov Foundation Team)

Posted by OpenGov Foundation on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 7:24 am

Government uses internet as a new way to "tell it to the hand," only to make people feel like they're participating.

Distributed internetworked applications are only as good as the political will exists to take feedback. If government will not take oral and written feedback now except as it serves their narrow political needs, then why would we expect for government to take electronic feedback?

Have you ever tried working with the applications? Agencies compile statistics on how many requests were made and then fabricate how many requests were addressed with no follow through for accountability on how those follow throughs played out in the real world.

Remember, virtual still makes fake.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 8:03 am

The "dangerous" thing for the government is that if they don't respond or action the items raised them people/citizens will feel like their opinions are being ignored.

No matter how silly the comments are the government will need to ensure that it answers each post, and does give constructive comments due thought.

Otherwise you run the danger of letting people have a voice but ignoring them. People would rather say nothing than be ignored (or feel powerless to effect change).

Good idea ... the execution will be the key to it's success or failure.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 09, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

So you can chuck out the representatives if you decide that you don't like them.

You have that power, but you don't have the power to micro-manage every decision they make.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 09, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

A journalist is mocking citizens for expressing views on civic affairs in the appropriate forum. Absolutely inappropriate. Where's the love for free expression?

Rebecca may think concern about the (much abused by MTC) parking-on-incline law is self-obviously idiotic, but then again, that unjustly levied $70 fine may represent groceries for a week to someone.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

This undermines the way political feedback should be delivered, in the view of SFBG, using bullhorns and blocking traffic and breaking windows.

What if it's no longer the case that our government only pays attention to either money on the one hand or the screeching, semi-hinged fringe on the other. Progress, thanks to technology.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

their ideals are most effectively promoted when the silent majority remain silent and all the noise comes from a handful of "usual suspect" activists and agitators.

Socialism and democracy never mixed well, which is why socialist governments usually dispensed with democracy.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

Guess the BG thinks that we should listen instead to people like the guy who yelled that "Google should give US a billion dollars. They can afford it." at the MTA meeting. Bet Rebecca would say that he's "just raising an important issue and sparking a debate".

Posted by Guest on Jan. 31, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

Compare these comments on to anything on the SFBG's comment section for quality. I think that it competes favorably. People actually use their real names and own their comments, imagine that!

Bart de Boisblanc
• 4 days ago

It says apartment buildings right? If you don't own the place you really can't complain.

• 9 days ago

It's just really loosely defined. The intent most likely is to keep people from doing something like renting it out, off the books, to people to live in or run a business out of.

• 13 days ago

Why does the government have to get itself in what the landlord and tenent should legally agree upon? If the landlord doesn't mind their tenent using the garage for storage, what right does the govt have to get involved in that?

Bret M Duff
• 20 days ago

How the hell are they going to enforce something like this without violating your privacy? Everyone stores stuff in their garage - it's private property. I have two vehicles in my Garage as well as using it for storage.

You’d think with San Francisco having such a large gay community that they’d have an aversion to such intrusions? This in my opinion on a par with the anti-gay/sodomy laws of old that could’ve only been enforced by intruding into the bedroom.

• 21 days ago

I suspect the leases for these covered apartments also say no storage in the garage. Back when I owned a rental property, the lease was specific on what could be stored and where. We didn't allow storage except in specific areas, not wanting tenants to junk up the place or keep hazardous materials (like gas cans, etc.) where they didn't belong.

Jim Minchener
• 22 days ago

This does NOT say your home ....DUH !!!

DJ Particle Jim Minchener
• 22 days ago

The grey area is townhouse complexes, which are technically "apartment complexes" of 2 or 3 units each, but often come with each resident having a private garage.

jdkahler DJ Particle
• 21 days ago

Not from San Fran so don't know their code, but in places I'm familiar with town houses are under separate zoning from apartment buildings and hotels with garages. If San Fran is like those places, they are not technically "apartment complexes." One community I'm familiar with has both, but they are covered under different zoning based on use.

• 23 days ago

The best thing to do is move out of california and let it implode under its own liberal weight. It is none of the governments business what people store in thier garages. More conservative states like Texas are far better to live in.

jdkahler Scott
• 21 days ago

I wonder if apartment building and hotel garages in Texas allow storage in their garages. Because with apartment buildings and hotels, garages are structures designed for cars, not the rooms or buildings for vehicles called garages that single family homes have. To connect this with "liberal" is just plain dumb. It's San Francisco, they have big buildings with attached garage structures, not designed for storage. That has nothing to do with liberal. Dumb.

• 4 months ago

This code is discriminatory against bicycles, which makes no sense in a city that is attempting to fix the transportation problem by encouraging cycling and discouraging reliance on cars.

Zach G disqus_Kcs5Ib6lv7
• 25 days ago

Seems like it only applies to apartments and hotels. Both are probably required to provide bicycle parking in their garages under newer SF codes. To bring this section in line, all that has to be done is replace "automobiles" with "vehicles," or "conveyances." The obvious point of the code section, taken as a whole, is to keep people from storing junk in their apartment and hotel parking spaces.

George Ward Zach G
• 20 days ago

It doesn't discriminate against bikes, only a damn fool would leave it in garage where it is sure to be stolen or vandalized !

Posted by marcos on Feb. 01, 2014 @ 10:26 am

So, the City asks citzens of SF to give public input and some of the feedback given by a handful of people upsets the kooky editorial board of the SFBG and this is now classified as an official problem?

Government cannot limit public comment in a public forum. If Ms. Bowe is concerned about some of the feedback received, perhaps she should post her own comments to the City and stop wringing her hands about what others say.

I don't necessarily agree with the specific comments cited, but it is appalling to me that SFBG seems to imply that certain people should not have the right to give public comment on a public forum. The SFBG position is both anti-democratic and downright scary

Enough Ms. Bowe, ir is time to get off your duff and start contributing positively to the City, rather than towing the party line, Pravda-style.

Posted by Chris on Feb. 01, 2014 @ 11:36 am

I'm sure the dialogue on this site is much more useful than the predictable drivel from sfbg's bloggers.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 01, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

I'm sure the dialogue on this site is much more useful than the predictable drivel from sfbg's bloggers.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 01, 2014 @ 8:38 pm
Posted by Guest on Feb. 03, 2014 @ 11:25 pm

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