It’s 2017. Where would you rather go to interact with your government, a grandiose building with marble stairs and mahogany desks OR, Facebook.
The State of New Jersey is proposing to spend over $300,000,000 to renovate the State Capitol building. Following suit, the City of Trenton is preparing to renovate its own City Hall building, which appears to have fallen into disrepair due to bad planning, neglect and misuse.
These will be exorbitantly expensive real estate investments. To keep the State’s Capitol building project in perspective, $300,000,000 spent to subsidize private development in Trenton would increase its tax base by 15%. That kind of money would revitalize the city.
The more important concern is that we’re thinking about spending vast amounts of money to perpetuate government processes that are over 200 years old. In 1790 when the NJ State Capitol was built and even in 1907 when Trenton City Hall was built, our needs were much different. Government was smaller and less powerful. A big imposing building that would intimidate the public was needed to project power. Today governments project power through taxes and force.
Do we still need intimidating government structures? Should inertia be in the way rethinking and improving our government?
Let’s take this opportunity to build a better government.
Since the time Trenton City Hall was built, cars, phones and the Internet have become widespread. In 1907 citizens likely needed a centralized place to meet and do the business of government. But that’s simply not true today. In fact, by limiting City Council meetings, records retrieval and permit application to a physical activity ONLY conducted at City Hall, we’ve made government less inclusive and inconvenient. City and State meetings are essentially small private affairs that go unattended.
Let’s turn this around and use 21st century technology to do it.
- Every meeting can be webcast.
- Residents could attend from their homes or office via phone or computer
- Participation could be managed with modern webcast technology allowing for typed, audio and video interaction
- Transcripts, documents, public polls and votes could be made automatically available
- Facebook is already a better place for civic debate than any government building
- Records can be made electronic
- Most records are (or should be) electronic today
- With just a little effort we can make birth certificates, tax records etc. available online and eliminate office space for storage and clerks for retrieval
- Gone would be OPRA requests to get basic government information
- Permits can be submitted online
- There is no government fee or permit that has to be submitted in person
- Processes would be faster and leave a clearer paper trail
- More office space and clerks could be eliminated
- Politicians don’t need marble floors on which to talk politics
- If a State or City politician really wants to talk politics, let them do it over coffee
- Or let them use modern, efficient shared office space (our representatives aren’t full time employees after all).
- Better yet, they can use audio-conferences, email and chat like the rest of us.
We’re contemplating spending millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to perpetuate a style of government which is archaic, inefficient and exclusionary. Instead, let’s spend a small fraction of that to reinvent government to be closer and more responsive to the people.
Let’s tear the buildings down and start over. Or, if our state capitols and city halls need to be preserved as relics of an ancient form of government, then let’s spend the money out of the museum budget.