09/29/2010 03:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Compelling Model of Community Information Needs

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy released its report, Informed Communities, a year ago with an exhortation for both "dialogue" and "action." Both are happening, and the Commission's report has helped. There are at least two reasons why.

The first is that key people in local communities throughout the country are hungry for the Knight Commission's message. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of addressing over 100 local government officials from throughout California at the Sixth Annual Symposium of the Institute for Local Government (ILG) . My topic was, "Informing Democracy: Local Leadership and the Changing Information Needs of Communities."

My talk was largely a call to action for local governments to tell their stories more effectively, to share more openly both public records and government data, and to engage the citizenry more thoroughly in active public participation. I spoke of community information needs largely within the frame provided by the Knight Commission. I stressed the imperative for enhanced government initiative at a time when (in my view) a reduction in professional reporting resources at the local level was leaving many communities worse off in terms of the circulation of local news.

I advanced this message with a little bit of trepidation. Local governments in California are under tremendous stress. Public finance in California is in shambles. One could imagine mayors, city managers, and city council members thinking, "We need another mission on our to-do list like we need the proverbial hole in our head." Yet, when I said to this audience that the public cannot support what it does not know about, heads nodded affirmatively. When I suggested that the opponents of government would give voice to disenchanted citizens if government itself did not engage them, no one dissented. When I provided examples of the many steps forward local governments are taking around the country, I received thanks and enthusiasm. The message I got from my audience was, yes, this is something we have to address.

The second is that the report offers a model of community information needs that is innovative and compelling. I understand that model as comprising four key propositions:

• To speak meaningfully about the information health of a community, you have to look at the community's total information ecosystem - its people, their information assets, and the way they interact.
• An information ecosystem is healthy if it helps a community to achieve coordination, accountability, problem-solving, and connectedness.
• A community intent on improving the health of its ecosystem has to attend to three things. It has to pursue an ecosystem that either contains or enables access to the relevant, meaningful information that people need. It has to promote people's capacity - by virtue of both their skills and access to technology - to work with information effectively. It has to provide community members with opportunities and motivation to engage with information and with each other.
• What makes the ecosystem democratic is the values with which these three goals are pursued. Democratic communities require a spirit of openness, inclusion, participation, and empowerment, and a dedication to the common pursuit of truth and the public interest.

To be candid, both the Commissioners and their staff had some anxiety that this model might seem too complex. But this model draws together conversations about journalism, community organizing, media, technology, human capital and civic engagement that too often occur in isolation from one another. It does so in a completely accessible and commonsensical way. And, as I think audience reaction to my ILG talk suggested, it provides a frame within which to understand and evaluate what might otherwise seem like an overwhelming deluge of specific issues and proposals.

People working to solve community problems on the ground find the Knight Commission frame helpful. A year from now, I bet it will have helped catalyze even more dialogue and more action to help communities become better informed.

(This post was published originally on the Knight Commission web site.)