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On Government Big and Small. And Weeding.

We are at a wonderful cultural moment, when the concept of big government is getting batted around, pulled apart and reconstructed in terribly useful ways. I recently tweeted this refreshing article from Dan Palotta, eloquently giving “big government” new meaning as a vehicle for tackling the big challenges of our day and meeting ambitious, visionary goals.

Code for America was itself inspired in part by my mentor Tim O’Reilly exhorting us all to attempt bigger, harder, more important problems; this theme in his work came first as a call to hackers to “work on stuff that matters” and more poetically to “being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings” in his ETech keynote in 2008. More recently he took up that theme in a government context, reminding the audience at the Gov 2.0 Expo last month that the outcomes worth fighting for may not be achieved on Internet time. I found that talk well worth watching, so I’m including it below.

But I’m equally interested in the small of government, the daily care and feeding that makes a community work. I spent last week in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, population 3200, staying at the home of the mayor and his family. (They are family friends I’ve known my whole life, what we call “framily.”) This was my second trip since Lewis had become mayor in his retirement, and I was struck by how much time he spent on his cell phone, dealing with the day to day issues of a community, from signing loan documents for an upgrade to the waste water systems to dealing with a stray dog in the road. For a job that pays $27.50 every three months (yes, that’s not a typo!), it looks like a 24-hour gig.

Tishomingo’s landscape features an invasive weed called Johnson grass, so walks around the town with Lewis involve stopping and pulling out these tall, rough plants from the side of the road in Tishomingo’s beautiful, lush landscape. Weeding is something I’ve always found hugely satisfying, and a special treat to do when traveling, because it requires knowing what’s a desired species and what’s a nuisance in that area. You have to weed with locals.

It also turns out it’s more fun to pick up trash with locals.The city had recently put better trash cans with lids that don’t blow off down by the swimming hole, and as we left there we each practiced the “pick up three pieces of garbage before you leave‚” rule that my daughter learned at her school. When you’re the mayor, evening walks include a giant plastic bag that you fill up with bottles, cans and other garbage along your route, and sometimes the provenance of that garbage. Lewis pointed out the spot along the road where the small bottles of gin turned to bottles of mouthwash as we neared the home of one resident with a drinking problem and the need to hide it from his family. I got the feeling Lewis and his wife Floy had been picking up this man’s litter for a long time, and expected to continue to do so. It was part of the fabric of their community.

Government is a mechanism for making society work, for allowing groups of people to live together in some degree of harmony, and to achieve more collectively than they could individually. The needs of the group are the needs of the individual writ large, and societies, like each of us, have both grand ambitions and day-to-day needs. What the dialogue around “open cities”, “gov 2.0″, or whatever else you want to call it is telling us, is that if we want to stop fighting about big government versus small government, spending and intrusion, we need to start thinking about big government plus small government, our lofty ambitions and the thoughtful service of our every day needs, and most importantly, our part as citizens in both. At this point in the evolution of our society, neither big government nor small government is possible as an outsourced, packaged service that we simply buy and forget about. It just doesn’t work. The costs of vending machine government, both financial and otherwise, have gotten too high. We must all learn to pull weeds when we walk, and we must all reach for goals that at first seem as outlandish as putting a man on the moon, sequencing the human genome, or launching a satellite network that would one day make it possible to pinpoint your location within a few meters.