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Recognition and Social Fear — The Competing Forces of Citizen Participation

What makes for a good day? When you get home at night do you feel like you have had a good day when it is filled with non-stop listening to others and you have had little to say? Or do you have a good day when you can say – “You know what, I had something to say that someone listened to, and I think it made a difference”?[1]

The desire to be recognized is one of the most powerful human motivations that all of us share. And it is at the core of many government 2.0 applications – often, cooperative platforms that enable complete visibility and back and forth between citizens and at times agency employees and officials.

Wikis, crowd sourcing, forums, and blogs are all examples of specific cooperative applications. These tool technologies are often touted as enabling inclusion of citizens, agency partners, and employees in a way not before possible. Many of these social tools are in fact designed to build social friendships or relationships in closed groups, or have a strong social element.

Social fear, too, affects citizen inclusion.

Of course the flip side of openness is the social fear that it creates.[2] It too is a powerful emotion.

Do you remember the first time that you walked to a podium in a public meeting to share your point of view? Did you have a lump in your throat and a pit in your stomach? For many in America and throughout the World, this is the case. We don’t naturally gravitate to public recognition. We fear looking stupid and being ridiculed. And so it is online.

Why would citizens with constructive ideas share them in an online food fight, where in today’s hyper-partisan world cooperative tools are used as mega-phones for deeply held beliefs, often at the expense and ridicule of those trying to be constructive? In that sense a good case could be made that they inhibit inclusion rather than expand it – standing alone.

The problem is that early use of cooperative technologies and methods have at times been misaligned with intended results. It is one thing to use technologies to enable cooperation in small groups, or online “Villages” (using a Dunbar number of approximately 150).[3] It is a very different thing to singularly use the same tools to support exchange in highly dense networks. (Networks having audiences into the thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions). In the former there are social relationships of trust based on commonality.[4] In the latter, those relationships often do not exist.

In our country’s history, that is why we developed the convention of public comment – a methodology which enables citizens to voice their views independently, and constructively, without being subject to the same level of criticism and consequently, social fear.

Of course, it could also be said that we have to some extent proven that “public comment” standing alone doesn’t work either. Whether it is agency or public apathy, or simply the high cost of participation, public comment standing alone probably doesn’t maximize citizen, partner and employee inclusion.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

The answer may be fairly simple. When designing public participation plans we do both. We strive to provide recognition for constructive participation that enables the broadest range of solution possibilities, but minimize the social fear that keeps many citizens from participating.

To do this we have to be willing to use a full range of off-line and on-line conventions that provide a means of citizen communication that meet the many needs and comfort levels of citizens. The same could be said for efforts that involve agency employees and partners.

Most often this will mean that online solutions will integrate multiple technologies – both cutting edge tools that support cooperation, as well as those that enable independent contributions of ideas and thoughts. [5]

This is the path to a lower cost of participation that both minimizes social fear and provides individual recognition. A fully integrated approach will meet the needs of the broadest possible audience and best achieve the diversity. Diverse participation will in turn lead to the broadest range of solution possibilities for the critical decisions of government.

This is the direction where the Gov 2.0 discussion needs to go and where it will be most effective. A little bit of this, and a little bit of that!

[1] Attribution for this idea should be given to Don Gunther, a close friend and colleague.

[2] See Cass R. Sunstein, Infotopia, How Great Minds Produce Knowledge, page 1052-53.

[3] See Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social
Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, pg. 3925 Kindle.

[4] See Christakis on homophily at pg 302. IPad Kindle.

[5] The integration of multiple technologies that support multiple network behaviors is a topic that I have explored in the Network Competency Model“”>© Kobza, 2010. http://tinyurl.com/5szjcp

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Pam Broviak

I agree there should be opportunity for citizen participation both online and off. I like online and agree with you that it offers the most promise because it isn’t as scary, it is always available, it’s archived for later access, and if used right can reach more people. Until about 2006, most of my experience had involved observing offline participation. And although it might work in some instances, I don’t think it has made as much impact or added as much value as the opportunity provided by the online method.

For one, it does seem to be much scarier for some to get up in a public meeting and speak. The ones I have watched who have not been scared were usually too mad to care what anyone thought about their comments. So right off the bat, you tend to have people participating in person in a much more emotional state – either scared or mad. It is definitely not a good mindset to be in to encourage collaboration and working together towards a solution. Fortunately some public leaders are very good at either putting people at ease or diffusing upset emotions. But some are not so good at it and can even make the meeting more uncomfortable for everyone.

The other problem with allowing comments or participation at a public meeting is that time is limited. Our state recently had considered legislation to allow anyone to speak with no restrictions. Many of us in government were concerned about this only because too often there is that one person in a community who wants to get up and talk and talk and talk. They add little to no value; they are misinformed; And they do not care. They just are there to complain because they like to publicly complain.

I once heard a speaker say that allowing one person in your community to monopolize the time of everyone at a public meeting is not democracy nor is it productive. This speaker said it is selfish and in no way is democratic if the local govt regularly listens to and responds to one person just because they yell the loudest or show up the most. That one person is not the representative of the people; the elected officials are the representatives. I thought his comments were interesting – it was the first time I heard someone assess this all too common problem in that way. But all of this seems less likely to happen online.

Many of the meetings I attended also ended up with a poor record of comments so I left without having a good summary of the discussion. The key is you don’t get that good feeling you mentioned at the beginning of the post – instead you just remember a room filled with people and comments all over the board.

I guess all that is why Gov 2.0 seems to offer so much more. And maybe we can learn from it better ways to conduct our offline participation.


Great post and another example of how I think we need to think more about the nuances of citizen participation.

Honestly, I think it depends a lot on the topic requiring engagement, structure of feedback required (brainstorming, tactical, etc), and timeline.

I think of it as something like shopping. Depending on what you are buying (from TVs to fancy Prada bags to cheap groceries to Target) there are different sales cycles (how long to buy). There are way different strategies in size of store, amount of customer service, pushiness, etc.

Warren Master

Good post, Kim. This would make for a interesting best practice article(s) in The Public Manager and/or an event (e.g., half-day forum) featuring case illustrations of how “…diverse participation … lead(s) to the broadest range of solution possibilities for the critical decisions of government.”

Kim Schaefer

This is an interesting analysis, Kim. I wish there was more info on the psychology of social participation. We are all very concerned with making the right technology available, but increasing comfort level is extremely important. Very insightful.