Government versus People Power: Who drives e-participation?

I received a few requests to reproduce my presentation at yesterday’s mini-debate at the United Nations International Conference on Engaging Communities. I took on the role of provocateur at the debate, arguing that governments should simply stay out of digital activism, except in terms of providing options for participation (facilitating network access) and in terms of responding to user-identified issues. In any case, I have reproduced the presentation in the extended entry for any and all interested parties.


JJ: The User perspective

The value of new technologies in generating social and political debate is clear: ease of engagement and the dig-down method of subject area searching and self-education online has brought about a period of active content consumption in a manner never achieved by traditional broadcasting and related media services. But the very frontier nature of new and emergent technologies in generating a public space for community engagement has brought into question the manner in which such spaces may be constructed and fostered to ensure equity of access and direct impact on decision making both in the public sphere and for private interests whether these be community oriented or commercially driven.

It is my contention that the best means of ensuring maximum impact and democratic participation in this digital age is to pursue a non-interventionist approach to community engagement. The value and difference of online media as a channel for social and political debate is based not in government information channels, but in user-driven knowledge exchange. This is not to say that Governments do not have a role in educating and informing about policy and process. It simply means that Governments and commercial entities should not attempt to moderate the content being developed by consumer-citizens.

In the case of digital activism, blogs and what Howard Rheingold calls “smart mobs” have begun to emerge as a significant force in changing public perception of ideas. Web logs or ‘blogs’ – for those that are unaware – are the online diaries of digital pundits who generate posts on any topic they can imagine, including links to websites and resources on issues as further reading or supporting material. These posts are displayed on websites in reverse chronological order so the most recent post is always at the top. And many blogs encourage readers to add comments to individual posts so a kind of ongoing conversation can emerge on topics, where bloggers and blog-readers can negotiate their positions on ideas without the intervention of a print media editor, a talk-back radio host or a conference chair who just doesn’t pick your question from those eager to participate in debate from an auditorium audience.

As a technology-facilitated activist venture, blogs are growing in importance, with the US Presidential election campaign and democratic conventions being blogged and a run-down of “what the bloggers are saying” being reported now in mainstream media. Even News Corporation boss, Rupert Murdoch, has now admitted that the rise of blogging in opinion formulation and information linking and consumption is something that media institutions need to monitor. But the blogging community are also adamant that the value in blogs as they are now operating is in the user-driven approach. If there is insufficient knowledge about a topic or discussion about an idea, then a blogger can incite that debate and encourage other bloggers and blog readers to discuss an issue.

One of yesterday’s most significant news issues was the development in Iraq of a new constitution and the end of US involvement in peace keeping activities in the region. But for the blogging community and the grass-roots pundits, the issue was the extraction of US troops from Iraq itself. Fueled by the odd story in the Washington Post and the New York Times, the bloggers yesterday were discussing the democratic principles behind remaining in the region and the impact this was having on public opinion, both in the US and across the rest of the western world. Traditional media as well as government rhetoric was used as weaponry in the debates, but it was the bloggers themselves – traditionally dominated by left-wing advocates and the odd (and often very odd) right-wing activist – that ran the discussion. Indeed, government intervention, hosting or rhetorical participation at this level would probably be regarded by the bloggers with some suspicion. Instead, the ambition of the bloggers is to attract the attention of mainstream media which then places pressure on governing bodies and representatives making decisions in the public interest. This is why blogs and other new media technologies have often been regarded as a so-called “fifth estate” – providing stops and checks on governments and media institutions.

Where governments do have a role in fostering community engagement is in genuine participation. It is perfectly reasonable for governments and governing bodies to aggregate data gleaned from user-driven and technology-facilitated activism, and to actively respond to issues raised.

Often the popularity and sense of personal importance that bloggers seek to achieve through blogging will be significantly positively reinforced when a blog post, public event or journal article is either tracked and responded to in commentary systems or on a public official’s own site, or cited in mainstream media coverage.

Governments have for so long pursued formal management processes to deal with community activism that the perceived relevance of engaging in such activism has waned over time. Similarly, government and private sector driven community engagement strategies – the colonization approach to collaboration and participation – are widely perceived as condescending and untrustworthy. There is, it seems, a marked preference among technology users that governments have a responsibility to ensure the choice of access and participation than to drive the process of participation.

The role of governments must therefore be facilitating, rather than mediating; contributing rather than broadcasting; provocative and responsive, rather than rhetorical.

Beyond blogs and flash mobs, there are other social networking techniques both facilitated by technology and growing from technology-oriented communities. Online journals and public forums are driving traffic to the digital domain for further information and public participation. Brisbane’s Ideas Festival is designed as a forum for community engagement with ideas, and will take place next year at QPAC as a QLD Govt funded event, with some fee-oriented events but a very large proportion of free events from public exhibitions, lectures, showcases and debates. It is a networking event to match up entrepreneurs and creative artists with venture capitalists and business interests, scholars with practitioners, public sector representatives with citizens.

But probably importantly, the Ideas Festival recognises that the ideas don’t stop at the festival itself. Many of the participants attending the Ideas Festival will wish to receive further information and engage in debate on ideas presented after the event. As such, the Ideas Festival is implementing a track-back facility to watch the debate continuing after the event. As much as possible, there are also recordings of lectures being made and posted online – such as the recent Jared Diamond lecture and the John Ralston Saul lecture which will take place at the Cremorne theatre down the road next week. These recordings allow participation in a festival which would otherwise be inaccessible to those citizens who cannot travel or who cannot commit time to the issues that will be addressed in these public agorae. While the festival is government funded and facilitated, it is the users who will contribute the debate, and it is the users who will define the success of the venture.

Similarly, electronic journals such as On Line Opinion – a journal of social and political debate – allow for industry representatives and interested pundits to create articles and incite debate both within forums hosted by the journal editors, and outside in private blogs, discussion lists and independent forums. Founded here in Brisbane, On Line Opinion gets up to 60,000 hits per subject area per month for 19 main subject areas. Forum participation is lively, but it is the participation that occurs outside the boundaries of the journal itself that are profound: the journal is used extensively in mainstream media (print and talk radio in particular) in generating content for further discussion, and grass-roots discussions are emerging from the articles held in On Line Opinion.

OLO is not a government led initiative, nor a private institution in the manner of most mainstream media. It is instead a non-profit, with shareholding interest from Australian universities and think tanks, interested in generating and engaging with material for their own ventures.

The range of vehicles for public debate are profound in the modern age. But it is because these ventures have been permitted to grow organically, perhaps with some recognition and infrastructure concerns mitigated by government, but dominantly driven in terms of content by the users, that they have become so successful.

Each vehicle for community engagement cited fulfils a different function in community engagement, and thus each may be regarded as successful in their own right. If a blog gets 12 comments to a post then it might well be regarded as highly successful. If a festival attracts 50 downloads of a sound recording of a public lecture it might be regarded as similarly successful. And finally, if an online journal obtains 100,000 hits per day it might be regarded as successful. But importantly, mainstream measures of performance in the digital environment should be treated with some scepticism. Often governments and governing bodies are focused on % or total cumulative community engagements when it comes to social and economic issues. But this is not necessarily a useful measure of community engagement. Indeed, in the blogging world, just because a blog post doesn’t get much in the way of comments doesn’t mean the blogger has said something unpopular, uninteresting or useless, but that blog readers simply didn’t have anything to add to the idea discussed. Again, it becomes important for governments and public officials to interpret the activism going on in the digital sphere as a mechanism to inform decision making on relevant topics. While I today have cited figures of active participants and blog trends, I’m also acutely aware of the fact that it isn’t the numbers that matter so much as the influence and significance of user-driven social participation, facilitated by emergent technologies. And this of course is difficult to measure. But perhaps the most logical measure of participation is perception. And where technologies are engaging community members, the perception may be that participation is high. But where community engagements are clearly impacting on decision making and government engagement with community driven initiatives, perception of the “success” of a community engagement strategy is that much more pointed.

Because where governments are perceived to listen, their value to the community is substantially higher than where governments are seen merely to condescend.

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