Social Media for Public Participation: Step 2 – Consult

Though informing is the first rung in the public participation ladder, it is the second step, consulting, that two—way communication and the promises it entails become paramount.

The IAP2 says that the purpose of consulting is “To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.” In essence, agencies enabling this kind of participation are promising citizens that “We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.”

Simply by being informed, citizens are participating in their own governance, and by informing the public of their activities, government agencies are at least opening the door to participation. But it is through consulting—as a first step—that citizens begin to take an active role in their own governance. And social media offers new ways for agencies to open up their operations and for citizens to play a meaningful role in those operations.

Promise and Peril

If you were looking for proof that US Citizens are ready to be consulted, you could scarcely do better than the rule change for the White House’s consultation tool, “We the People.”

When it was launched, on September 22, 2011, We The People worked like this: someone would submit a petition and ask people to sign it. Once the petition had 150 signatures, it would be searchable on the site. According to the White House’s statement, once a petition garnered 5,000 signatures, “the White House staff will review it, make sure it gets to Obama Administration policy experts, and issue an official response. President Obama will even answer a few himself.”

Barely two weeks later, administrators decided to raise the numberof signatures needed five-fold: to 25,000. We the people, it would seem, were ready for our government to consult with us.

Conversely, We the People points to some of the perils of throwing open the doors of government to unfettered citizen access. The first petition to break the threshold was not about energy policy, or bilateral trade agreements, but legalization of marijuana. Subsequent petitions have asked about the government covering up information about UFOs, ending pet-homelessness, and even a petition asking only for a “vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition.” Hardly encouraging.

How Consultation Helps

Given that allowing citizens to have a voice in agencies’ operations will almost certainly result in having at least a few unproductive participants (or perhaps even counterproductive ones), executives and managers may well ask why they should be asking for input in the first place. The three most salient reasons, at least in my estimate are that allowing for citizens to consult:

  1. redirects government attention in alignment with citizen interest.
  2. fosters citizens’ understanding both of the position of their government as well as the opinions and rationale of their fellow citizens.
  3. enhances legitimacy of decisions–when couched in the language of consultation.

Redirects Government Attention: sometimes even the best administrators lose sight of the forest while they’re looking at the trees. Other times, they are in the wrong forest altogether. The surest way to ensure that agencies are aligning their activities with the needs of their constituents is to ask the constituents what their needs are.

Fosters Citizens’ Understanding: as much as government agencies should understand what citizens need, the citizens themselves must understand what their government can and cannot do. They also need to be exposed to the panoply of opinions and perspectives among their fellow citizens, the better to understand how policies are made and implemented to serve a diverse population.

Enhances legitimacy of decisions: when people are asked to take part in developing, implementing, or evaluating a program, they are more likely to feel that the process was fair (assuming, of course, that the process was indeed fair!). Some people may not feel that the optimal result was achieved, but by being consulted and seeing their contributions at least addressed, if not adopted, citizens are more likely to believe that they have a responsive, open government.

Social Media Tools for Consulting

In a future post, I’ll details some tools that agencies can use for consulting with their stakeholders.

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