Citizen Participation in Government and Journalism: a Future to Embrace with Caution

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.

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Brian Dowling

More needs to be said about this, far more but the crux of the articles rests in large part on the pithy statement of of Mr. McKean. Let’s keep in mind that he is confronted by three legislators, other professionals in governance speaking about an interaction between the legislative branch and executive branch resulting in the veto. His response was in truth, I know better about the workings of the watch because we have added in dozens more wheels and gears to its mechanisms over the years and only the most skilled professionals can ever hope to understand it. I am one of them and you despite having an active interest in this matter are not. Since history is usually one sided in these matters everyone hangs their head in shame. However, one of the men might have responded, but good sir, to continue your analogy, we only wanted to know what time it is. We desire to know how close it is to lunch and could have on our own estimated by looking at the sun. Your response could have been more precise and useful but in reality adds no value to our lives. I would also add that Global Voices has being doing citizen participative journalism for some time. http://globalvoicesonline.org/ As I said though, this needs to be studied very closely as the changes that these questions raise are coming whether we want them or are ready for them or not.

Brian Dowling

Being one of those “must get the primary sources” types not only for the original sourced articles but the supporting ones as well, I read Gadi Ben-Yehuda‘s four steps to Citizen 2.0 which reminded me of Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff’s book GROUNDSWELL which provided a taxonomy for Web 2.0 usage on the Internet. I had blogged in a previous incarnation that ii also described different levels of slacktivists.

  1. “creators”, who blog on their own web pages,
  2. “critics” who post comments,
  3. “joiners” who sign up for online communities,
  4. “spectators” who read and watch, and finally
  5. the unengaged “inactives”

Now another problem seems to being put forth, the complexity of too much involvement from citizens.

My view is that Mr. Matthew Hall may not be going far enough. I do have a bias here, I am one of those in California whose positions were eliminated when the governor and legislature eliminated redevelopment and over 400 agencies shut down. However, as a member of the redevelopment profession, I have stated before publicly that we bear a great deal of responsibility built up over the years for our demise. A good part of that is not being connected closely enough with the constituents that we served. One example was affordable housing which though in aggregate redevelopment was a major contributor (because nobody else besides the Feds were either really trying or if trying capable without RDA funds) many individual cities paid little attention to affordable housing doing only slam dunk senior projects. The governor made a draconian move and nobody still seems to know what we did so we head into the sunset.

So it is not only a matter of a growing gap between the needs of communities and the limited capabilities of government. There is an increasing complexity in governance and economics which governments all too often address by making things more complicated (not the same thing). In some instances the response by government is to become even more insular. This in no way dismisses the importance of the questions being asked, it makes them even more important. We need to move passed merely having a list of apps for governance and figure out how we, and I will use the term civil society here to avoid the bifurcation between the political body of institutional government and the community body of democratic governance, build a new future. I liked in particular one response to Mr. Hall question “Should citizens as a platform be just as much of a focus as government as a platform?” answer “Well… in a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” should there be a difference?” Mr. Hall’s article links to the New York story which links to a story on San Francisco’s pioneering 2010 open data law from which I found the following.

“Carl Malamud calls this country’s laws “America’s Operating System” because they describe the function of government, but there’s another analog here: operating systems don’t do what they are supposed to do, they do what they are programmed to do, and those are sometimes two different things.”