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Governments’ success with new social media depends on success with old engagement methods

[Note this is a cross post from my blog, the original (with links & images) can be found here.]

Transparency, open government, e-government, Gov 2.0 are all terms to describe government’s new relationship with citizens in the age of the Internet, particularly using the social media technology solutions of Web 2.0. Many believe in its promise to make government more approachable and more navigable via the Internet by improving access to the governance process and programs and services.

One objective is to help citizens find information, a/k/a content, and be able to process it as they want or need. Another purpose is to enable some form of structured electronic government-citizen and citizen-government dialog between the two parties.

However, a few years into this new form of online democracy, many obstacles and hurdles have been identified making it difficult for government and citizens to “find” each other, let alone interact. Some of the causes are technical, while others are social. Hence, “new relationship” may not be the correct word. Instead, this new association may look more like a “joint venture”; and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

While the technology has provided new forms of communication and information sharing —and arguably, in formats that meet citizens’ growing preferences and expectations for interaction— it has been slowed, detoured, ignored, even rejected in some cases. This is primarily due to the historical, legal and political nature of the government-citizen relationship –a status quo existing in this nation since its beginning.

These continued challenges are especially evident (and frustrating) when compared to the new technologies’ welcome adoption in the private sector for interaction between business and consumers, and in our personal lives among our friends and family.

Due to the tireless efforts of men and women in the public sector who mostly find they are paddling against the current, thousands of dedicated government employees believe they are doing the right thing to “open” as much of their content to the public as physically and legally possible. So with this increasing gain of momentum, it’s worth pausing to take a read on the progress. While it may be the right thing to do, are we moving in the right direction? That is, while all these “apps for democracy” are assumed to be a good thing, are they necessarily what are being sought after by the general public first or foremost from this new relationship structure?

By bringing up the open data component of open government, let’s be mindful that government is neither a business nor a product. So while having the ability to interact with or manipulate its data (e.g., content) may advance thoughtful policy making, have we yet to decide on a strategy or effective structure to take care of the first order of business: engagement? Or are we redirecting our energies to low hanging fruit because it’s there and we have some technology that lets us work with it?

You may not agree with me, but I have an idea that we have some restless natives out there who require attention. When town hall meetings that are intended to be education forums for citizens to learn about and discuss health care reform (one of the most important public policy debates of our time) turn into nothing but a physical shouting match; or when a Massachusetts senate race expected to be a shoe-in for the Democrat nominee results in a GOP victory (in Massachusetts!); and subsequently, when our elected leaders suggest the only way to ensure consensus is to have a filibuster-proof majority (what ever happened to compromise?), then its time to reevaluate the basic relationships that exist between government and its citizens and among the government leaders themselves.

These relationships are strained, perhaps even rebellious. What marriage counselor wouldn’t love to get these two parties on her couch? Government: “Not only does she (citizens) expect me to solve all her problems, she’s also lost all her trust in me.” Citizens: “He (government) doesn’t do anything but sit around complaining about others; then when some stranger gives him special interest; he’s off to take care of their needs and ignores all of mine.”

Usually, the first recommendation to help mend the friction between the feuding parties to find some common groundis what? You got it: communication. That’s talk it out, not “text it out”. It’s the personal touch and approach that’s needed. In this case, it’s more about schmoozing and showing an interest in others. Politicians know this. Why do they forget or ignore it when they take office or become a public official?

So, when it comes to the use of technology in this equation, let’s set aside, for now, the use of technology as an end, and use it as a means to start improving the dialog and the relationship between citizens and government, and minimizing partisan politics in policy making. For any relationship to be productive, the parties have to be able to get along, before they can expect to go along. Web 2.0 technologies should be focused to achieve that goal first.

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Profile Photo Patrick Quinn

An excellent post. We need more of this sort of thoughtful analysis.

If new media tools do indeed reduce the rancor of partisan politics, it will be because the rancorous voices now dominating the discourse are unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole. Social media offers a platform for the rest of the audience to get in the discussion, and if the rest of the audience is more enlightened, and more committed to once-traditional compromise politics, well, that would certainly be an improvement. I don’t think that will happen–I don’t think the rancorous voices are unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole–but one can always hope.

The time I’ve spent working with social media in government has increased my pessimism about and distrust of government, the political process and the electorate. It’s possible that new technology will open the way to a brighter civic future, but it’s just as possible that it will serve as an amplifier for the loudest voices of ignorance and backwardness, that it will make the discourse even coarser than it is today. If I had to bet, that’s where I’d put my money.

But of course I also think the species will go extinct in the next 100 years, so I’m an outlier opinion.

Profile Photo Daniel Bevarly

Patrick:
Thank you for your enlightening comment. If I had to bet, I’d follow your lead. Which is unfortunate because, as you state there is a possibility “that new technology will open the way to a brighter civic future.” Instead, and where I agree with your prognosis, the traditional process for special interests to take all the seats at a public forum in order to dominate the discussion will indeed be replicated utilizing this new technology as the “amplifier for the loudest voices.” The gap that now exists between citizens and their elected officials may instead become a chasm.

Patrick, just wanted to mention I enjoyed your overview about how KDOT’s Transportation Online selected a social media provider for its citizen network. It was a very thoughtful and educational post that also lead me to contact that vendor on behalf of a client. Keep up the good work.