Two online articles, a Twitter exchange, and my own musings in the past few days have centered around the roles that “ordinary” citizens are adopting with the help of sensors and connectivity technology.
The two articles that I noticed were Matthew Hall’s “Citizens as a Platform for Civic Improvement” and Robert Krulwich’s “The Three Little Pigs And The Future Of Journalism.” (Feel free to read those and then jump back here, if you’re one of those “must get the primary sources” types.) What these articles have in common is the assumption that not only can citizens play key roles in society, but that they should take up the mantle of government (Hall) and journalism (Krulwich). And while I certainly advocate for citizen participation, what I don’t see in either of these of articles is even a hint that we need to create the structures through which citizens engage with great care and attention.
Here is the essence of Hall’s argument:
The whole reason that Gov 2.0 efforts are so badly needed is because there is a growing gap between the needs of communities and the limited capabilities of government. Why are we expecting and waiting for government to do even more when it is already stretched to the limit? If citizens can lead innovation and free up resources for government then government will have the resources to follow suit.
Citizen led civic improvement means finding ways to utilize the tremendous collective power of citizens to improve governance. Civic technologists can empower citizens to be the platform for change by building tool sets that give citizens the capability to collectively monitor, analyze, report, and improve their communities.
Krulwich, meanwhile, shares a video produced by The Guardian that shows how the story of the Three Little Pigs may be more complex than we realize, and its scope is revealed only through the reporting of citizen-journalists.
As for the huffing and puffing, bloggers wonder: Did the wolf really have the lung power to knock down an entire home? A telltale photo shows the wolf using an inhaler. Did he have asthma? Asthmatic wolves can’t blow down homes. Why then, did the first two houses fall? Could the pigs have faked the whole thing?
“The Three Little Pigs” video is a declaration of what The Guardian wants to be, wants to become, which is an open-architected, let’s hear from our viewers, our bloggers, you “out there” — the amateur photographers, gossips, sleuths, you with your opinions, your enthusiasms, your suspicions. Media companies have been saying this for years, but Rusbridger says The Guardian is going all-in.
“By being more open and more participative, more networked, it is likely to be a better approximate for the truth,” he says. That includes “even determining its news agenda.”
The precedents for Hall’s piece already live in our pockets: MyCityWay, SeeClickFix, and the myriad other apps from New York City, and Washington, DC, as but two examples, attest to the market that exists for apps built on government data. Further, citizen participation in government is nothing new; local government especially, but in recent years in federal government as well–witness Regulations.gov or PopVox. The question that Hall raises, however, is should citizens be taking upon themselves the delivery of essential government services? Hall presents four activities that citizens can do, which he summarizes as MARI: monitor, analyze, report, and improve government services. While monitoring and reporting are certainly within the capabilities of most citizens, should government agencies (or other citizens) entrust the analysis of those services, to say nothing of the means for improving them, to unknown, unvetted, unaccountable citizens?
With regard to analysis, Hall writes
Part of turning citizen monitoring into actionable data is providing them with an understanding of what is happening in their communities and giving them tools to analyze that information and extrapolate meaning from it. . . . It is important here to ensure that citizens are given engaging tools and not just presented raw data to analyze.
This passage raises some questions: who is designing these tools? If government is, then are citizens anything more than what IT folks sometimes call a “chair-to-keyboard interface”? And if government is not providing the tools, then wouldn’t we want any analysis produced to be accompanied by the tool the tool that produced it, so both can be weighed by the responsible agencies? If that’s the case–and I hope it is–we may lose whatever productivity gain we sought due to the increased workload on our data scientists.
Further, the investigation of the analytic tools–and on the recommendations for service improvement to which their analysis would point–should itself be the subject of serious deliberation by both government agencies and the constituencies they serve. And here is where Krulwich’s article, and a twitter exchange I had with O’Reilly Media’s Alex Howard, are relevant.
Thomas Jefferson is purported to have said “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And likely, most people would agree that a functioning press is essential to democracy*. So, when the editor of an important and influential newspaper like the Guardian argues that citizen-journalism is essential to the future of journalism and technologists argue that citizen co-delivery of government services is essential to the future of government, it’s time to think about what role, exactly, it is appropriate for citizens to play, and how both journalism and government can be reorganized to incorporate the contributions of unknown, unvetted, and unaccountable actors.
The challenge presented by citizen participation in government (or in journalism) was noted as far back as the eighteenth century, but Pennsylvania’s first governor, Thomas McKean. A lawyer by training and a public servant of longstanding, McKean was confronted by three state legislators who were incensed that McKean had vetoed a piece of their legislation. Receiving them in his office, McKean took out his pocket watch, told the three that it was broken and asked each of them in turn if they could fix it. All demurred, each having a profession that did not lend itself to studying watch-repair. McKean then said:
This is truly strange! Any watchmaker’s apprentice can repair that watch; it is a simple piece of mechanism, and yet you can’t do it! The law, gentlemen, is a science of great difficulty and endless complication; it requires a life-time to understand it. I have bestowed a quarter of a century upon it; yet you, who can’t mend this little watch, become lawyers all at once, and presume to instruct me in my duty.
Professionals in government and journalism can study their disciplines at any number of graduate schools. Yet professionals in both fields have been opening up their practices to participation from people who have a stake in their enterprise, but not necessarily a firm grasp on how it operates. This is particularly true of government, which many (CNN says most) Americans think is broken, but certainly not all Americans know how it works.
Ultimately, of course, I believe in citizen participation (see here, here, and here as examples), but I am wary of uncritical inclusion in either government or journalism of people with ulterior motives, dubious understanding of governmental or editorial procedures, and no accountability should their contributions come to a bad end. As tools develop to help citizens engage more meaningfully with government and the media, those organizations must concurrently develop the policies to ensure that engagement is for the benefit, not the detriment, of both the citizenry and the institutions that serve them.
*nota bene: Jefferson is also credited with the quote “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers,” so maybe we’re talking about degrees of abjection in his eyes.