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Participative Government: A Historic, Yet Fragile Opportunity.

This week I had an opportunity to speak with Chris Dorobek, well-known host of Federal News Radio. It was an important discussion because, like many, I have been reflecting mightily about how and whether the commitment to a more participative government will succeed, and if so, in what form. Though historic, the opportunity is fragile. As a country we are about to make trillions of dollars of expenditure, levels never before experienced in our history, predicated upon legislated transparency and public involvement.

Chris shared a story that helped me frame (my POV) an important threshold question. That question is: Do we authentically believe as a country that citizen engagement is important? Do we believe that a new wave of citizen involvement can truly transform governmental processes for the better? Does citizen engagement even matter?

The answer may seem obvious to many – “of course”. Most of us view engagement as our fundamental right. But is that enough? Do all other citizens and government officials share that belief? The answers are “no” on both counts.

This is important. Because if we fail to answer objections and to design participative processes that work, then the current paradigm shift to citizen participation will not be sustainable. The movement towards citizen involvement will fail. And a historic opportunity will be lost.

Why? There are two primary reasons. They both are based on trust – or lack thereof – in the process itself.

Results build trust.

First, it is often not clear how citizens can help governmental processes work better. Public involvement is often viewed as a complex unmanageable process that has few good outcomes. It is often highly emotionalized and characterized by social fear. Smart mobs commonly high jack public process which alienates many others. Meaningful, thoughtful dialogue that could make a constructive difference suffers as a result.

Second, many elected representatives and government officials do not buy into the notion that citizens can add constructively. Like their corporate counter parts, they believe that they are the experts – elected or appointed to do a job, to make decisions, based on their recognized superior experience and skills. This is not true “across the board” but it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge history.

Let’s get back to Chris’s story. Chris shared that he was recently speaking to a group of federal managers about the potential merits of receiving public comments and the possibility that on a given issue, a policy question might receive as many as 10,000 comments or citizen inputs. A large part of his audience seemed dismayed and even fearful at the prospect. What if electronic engagement actually works?

I vividly remember a similar meeting in 2000 with a respected senior governmental official. An officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, he was largely responsible for leading the Everglades restoration. In 2000 I visited this official in Miami in an effort to convince him to use electronic outreach for the Everglades Restoration project. The project covers a wide swath of rural, often remote geography as well as major urban centers.

The official, though acknowledging the technical capability to receive and analyze comments electronically, graciously declined. He pointed to box after box of paper comments stacked in his office collected on his journeys for public hearings throughout the state of Florida. As he said, his job was to collect them – not read them, nor could he. In his view, he had fulfilled his mission.

Both examples go to the heart of the participation challenge. If elected officials do not believe that public participation can actually add value, and lead to better decision making, if governmental officials believe that participation is unmanageable, and if citizens believe that they will not be heard, and that they can not make a difference, then the paradigm of electronic citizen participation will not advance, regardless of how well intended it might be.

The reason is simple. Few trust the process itself – not elected representatives, not government agencies, not citizens. As Steven Covey opines in The Speed of Trust, part of building trust is getting results. No results – no trust. This means that to ultimately succeed, the processes being built today have to generate results that build trust. Anything short will lead to failure.

Purpose over Method

We have come a long way since 2000. Given the effectiveness of social media in creating business value for major brands, and the concurrent effectiveness of social networking in President Obama’s campaign, we now know that mass participation can work. But we have to ask: how and why?

Therein lies the problem. In government we focus much of our energy on the “how” – the enabling technology choices, and not enough on the “why” – the behavioral challenge. Technology procurement and architecture dominate many discussions, rather than the behavioral logic that would make citizen involvement “in network” successful. We take the “why” as a given.

Government also has a bias towards centralization. Yet history tells us that citizen engagement is most powerful when decentralized – from the ground up. In fact, government is often defined by centralized decision-making and centralized aggregation and use of scarce resources. In early stages of the Internet, it has often approach citizen engagement in the same way – something to be aggregated in government portals.

This is the learning that we have to take away as we prepare to build recovery.gov and to push state and federal agencies towards ever higher levels of transparency and required citizen involvement. Mere commitment to building social networks in government, or building more massive government portals designed on principles of centralization, will not achieve the stated goal of meaningful citizen engagement. It is going to take more.

We must first define the purposes of public involvement in specific well- defined governmental processes. What do we hope to achieve? And how can citizens practically make a difference? We then have to map network interactions to achieve those outcomes.

Only after business problems and citizen behaviors are well understood, should technology choices be made. Being effective is going to involve far more than putting up public comment forms, wikis, or other social media technologies on portal based Web sites. Choices will be much more nuanced, though not necessarily more expensive or complicated. But they should be mapped to specific citizen network behaviors.

Government is complex. And the ways in which citizens, government employees, and business stakeholders might add to their government through electronic engagement is equally complex. We must start with behavioral understanding first, followed by thoughtful expectation setting.

Success comes back to trust

The ultimate point is one of trust. If electronic involvement processes build results, citizens, elected representatives, and government officials will trust, and perhaps over time, embrace new processes. If what we do is spend massive amounts of taxpayer funds building electronic participation systems that achieve marginal results, or fail, then trust will again be broken and a historic opportunity lost.

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Pam Broviak

I like all the points that you bring up – your post did a good job of highlighting all the issues at hand as we move forward and try to engage citizens. The challenge is not only to change how government approaches this, but to succeed in convincing people it is worth their time to participate.

Another factor to keep in mind as we move forward is that the approach will be somewhat different for local, state, and federal levels of government. Not only because of the potential numbers involved, but because the goals and outcomes are of different magnitudes.

This is why I am excited about implementing all this within a smaller municipality. The others here in GovLoop (@Mark Danielson & @Bob Ashley) who work for small communities have already pointed out in blogs and discussions how we have been practicing social media skills all along – just using traditional methods of communication. So, we seem to have it the easiest because all we have to do is figure out how to include these new tools in what we already do. Some might wonder why bother if we already are succeeding with more traditional methods. And I would say that it is because these tools offer the opportunity to include even more people in the conversation, and because these tools will make it even easier for them to participate.

But no matter the level, you have to have people in government who want to engage citizens. And as you pointed out there are plenty of people in government who do not want to be bothered. I think this is a training and mentoring issue. Early on in my government career, I was taught that it was important to communicate with citizens. At the time, I am sure I didn’t appreciate the impact that this training would have – then, it was just one more task to complete. But now, I am thankful to every supervisor I had, particularly those at the Village of Lombard, who made sure that citizen engagement was part of everything I did. Now, I have a better appreciation of why this is so important; now, it is my turn to make sure those who work for me appreciate the importance of reaching out to our community.