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10 reasons why online social media are critical to democratic governance (pt. 2)

Yesterday, I posted the first five of 10 reasons why the Web and particularly Web 2.0, also known as social media are critical to sustain and advance democratic governance processes in the United States. Today, I list reasons 6-10.

The Web has transformed and continues to transform how government operates, especially in its relationship with citizens. The spread of broadband internet access has greatly accelerated the possibilities that can be realized.

Social, economic, political and technological factors all play roles in this emerging form of electronic collaboration and information sharing. Businesses have embraced the new web technologies to transform how they transact with their customers. For government, however, the relationship with citizens extends far beyond how to transact the business of government (though, that is part of the relationship) to the major challenge of how to actually engage and interact with the public around the important day-to-day governance of these legal institutions.

I welcome your thoughts and observations on this topic; even your feedback on these 10 reasons.

6. The growing diversity of our population with the shrinking curriculum of civics and government education in the classroom diminishes the knowledge and understanding of our democratic foundation of historical governance processes and citizen-government engagement models.

The traditional public forum, where elected officials present the government’s business to citizens, and where the public could see, hear, and provide feedback and comments are being experienced less and less by citizens as society ages and new citizens come of age. Without institutionalized efforts to educate students and the lack of replicated online forms of conventional engagement and collaboration akin to the traditional town hall environment, future democratic processes will be impacted. Could future generations’ lack of knowledge, understanding and grasp of our historical processes change our system of governance? Electronic forms of education and engagement models via the Web; with the ability to interact with them in a 24/7 environment, offer benefits of exposure, testing and hands-on experiences to carry on our civic heritage –in or out of the classroom and in or out of city hall.

7. Social media is enabling us to move from online communication as transactions, to online collaboration as interaction.

“Here is information for you to read and download. Thank you for visiting.” That was the early citizen experience on government web sites (Unfortunately, it’s still the standard for many governments online). With Web 2.0 and social media solutions that experience now can be interactive. It’s now become all about content –how it is presented and how it can be used. Dynamic multi-media data can be read, watched or listened to, even repurposed into something else entirely. We can comment on it, mash it up with other applications to make it more meaningful or usable by others. This is not information that is simply received. Rather, it is to be engaged and used for collaborating and for enabling citizens to contribute new ideas and to participate in helping build the content. After all, it’s their content.

8. Capturing traditional informal and formal conversations can now be replicated by social media either as conversations or public comment.

I may have some definite ideas about a government project or policy. I may even have some important information I can contribute to the discussion. My outlets? I may talk about the issue with my barber; in church with fellow members; on my kid’s soccer field with other adults; at a cocktail party; and, even with my neighbor over the hedge. What I would call as informal. Unfortunately, if the only time my elected official has provided a forum to hear my ideas is at a public meeting (formal), he/she probably will never know my thoughts. Social media, particularly through social networks, is structured to enable the capture of all those ”informal” discussions I had with others (along with their feedback) so that government officials and even more citizens can read or listen to them online and help build and shape more informed opinions from them.

9. The legal definition for “public comment” and the general nature of citizen accountability may eventually be redefined due to current practices taking place on the Internet and away from off line standards.

For more than 230 years, our federal, state and local governments have facilitated public comment from citizens on projects, issues, events and legislation. People know that the term involves: registering or signing up, or the spontaneous wish to speak at a government forum; usually in a face-to-face environment that provided for attribution of the person making the comment; and the citizen comment addressing the topic at hand (here’s one example). Afterwards, that input became part of the public record. By design, and accepted, strangely enough by government agencies, public comments can now be made anonymously and globally even on issues of local interest. This trend has changed the face of citizen input. From my discussions with “Millennials”, they have shown an acceptance to qualify anonymous comments as formal public comment.

10. The cart has been placed before the horse. Online democracy, also known as Gov 2.0, looks more like a reinvention instead of a replication of our historical structure and conventional standards. (This is more of an observation than a reason.)

Don’t think it’s the public who is pushing government toward new online methods to communicate and share information. Most are unaware or indifferent beyond political campaigns as to the transformation underway. This important and needed revolution is being fueled mostly from the inside: internal staff and among select industries. The “drivers” are represented by technology, government, politics, policy, civics, education and law.

Consider that the model of Gov 2.0 is broadly focused around two areas: Data and Dialog. The main focus has been the concept of open government which seeks to make more data more easily available and accessible to the public –a noble cause. However, finding ways for more inclusive and meaningful dialog to occur between and among citizens and government has been lagging. This is mainly because “data” is the low hanging fruit in the Gov 2.0 environment –it’s static and more readily available. “Dialog,” on the other hand, is about people who are much more complex and challenging. Dialog is dynamic to say the least, and not as easily containable as data, making it difficult to create solutions to facilitate and manage. We need to ensure we do not put the cart before the horse because data will not be the engaging component that returns citizens to their government as active participants. That solution has to begin with dialog.

We need to develop solutions to facilitate both of these important components of governance and democracy. Why? Because data provides us with critical statistics and benchmarks –important for building budgets and delivering services –for governing. Dialog provides us with ideas, engagement and collaboration –important for building relationships and democracies.

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Adriel Hampton

I agree that dialog and capturing information gleaned from informal communications are important to democratic governance in the 2.0/social media world. Great points, Dan. These are exciting – and at times, frightening – times.

Daniel Bevarly

Thanks, Adriel, for the comment. You’ve been neck-deep and at the center of this transition. Your contributions have helped drive intelligent discussions that minimize the “fright factor.”