Unshakable Faith in the Human Spirit

After my speaking engagement at the Making Connections: Social Media Conference & Internal Communications in the BC Government this week, I had someone in the audience challenge my assumption about why Gov 2.0 works. My assumption is that most people (I estimate 95%) want to contribute, be part of something larger than themselves, and to make the world a better place

He asked whether I had any empirical evidence for my assumption, because his understanding from what he read was it was more like 15% who want to make the world a better place, 80% who are apathetic and don’t care, and 5% who are out to scam people.

The question was a good one, because it allowed me to make a distinction. My questioner was right: There are a lot of apathetic people. However, my point is that if apathetic people are given the trust, the guidance and the wherewithal (in this case social media), the vast majority will do the right thing. Call it optimism or rose-coloured glasses; I call it my unshakable faith in the human spirit.

Nurse log, Amanda Park, United States
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: The Quinault Rain Forest is better than the Hoh

Aside from my life experience, my observation is somewhat empirical. I’ve seen the success of crowdsourced initiatives such as Wikipedia and Linux. Wikipedia is a straightforward example. Anyone in the world can update Wikipedia, and it works. Wikipedia contains the three elements of trust, guidance, and the technology that allows people to contribute to a service for all.

Recently in San Francisco, a group of 100 hackers came together for 24 hours to create apps for social good. In a concentrated effort, the developers created an apps to allow subscribers to get an SMS message when a neighbour needs a hand, report missing persons using location data, and exchange fresh produce (for local gardeners), to describe a few.

I’ve also seen social media for social good work on our government corporate microblogging and intranet sites. Public servants routinely contribute to constructive, unmoderated conversations that immediately allow for improved collaboration and communication across silos and ultimately improve service outcomes for citizens.

That is not to say that we have 95% of the world’s population wanting to make a difference. We still have a large majority of people not contributing to the social web to create change and those who are apathetic and don’t care. We all get apathetic at times. But this is the challenge and opportunity. It is a battle for the hearts and mind of the apathetic that will determine the outcome of the human race and our planet.

In what percentage are you? Are you contributing in your area of interest, part of something larger than yourself, somehow making a difference? As Marshall McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”

We need your help and we need your leadership.

All the pieces are in place. It’s your move.

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Vancouver Riots, Democracy and Gov 2.0

In my last post, I wrote about how Gov 2.0 has the potential to allow for a more authentic democracy where all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Connected, informed citizens will no longer tolerate secretive and paternalistic government. I still believe this. However, my faith was shaken somewhat yesterday by the riots, looting and mayhem we had in the streets of Vancouver.

Gov 2.0 presupposes trust, and trust is a two-way street between government and citizens. Unfortunately, events like the rioting that happened yesterday undermine democracy and support command-and-control advocates in government, justifying to some the expansion of a police state. It paints a picture of citizens that need to be taken care of, to be controlled.

Image from yfrog/Lisa Johnson

Yesterday evening after the hockey game in Vancouver we saw the opposite of wisdom of the crowds. We saw the stupidity of the masses. Sociologists tell us that riots are fuelled by factors such as alcohol consumption, frustration, hypermasculinity, large and dense crowds, in-game player violence, and mob mentality. People lose their inhibitions and sense of right and wrong.  A few instigators can be highly influential under the right circumstances. And that was what happened last night: a few instigators (some say organized) incited a riot that made a mess of downtown Vancouver.

On the other hand, Gov 2.0 empowers citizens. We are empowered by our voices, knowledge, connections, and ability to organize. Even in the wake of the riots instigated by a relatively few hoodlums, the people of Vancouver came together over social networks to share digital evidence of rioters to help press charges and to organize to help with the massive clean-up. Citizen’s started Facebook groups like “Post Riot Cleanup” (13,352 likes), “Vancouver Riot Pics” (75,333) and “Shame the Stanley Cup Rioters” (2,077).  Meanwhile, on Twitter people expressed their outrage at the situation … and #embarrassment. So many volunteers turned up to clean up today (12,000) that many had to be turned away. Self-organization of citizens in this way restores my faith in the potential for Gov 2.0, open government, and the people that make it happen.

How do we organize government so that citizens can participate?

We are in the midst of a digital social revolution. Changes that are so dramatic in the Arab spring also wash upon the shores of democratic countries, though to a considerably lesser degree. But it is a revolution nevertheless. Just as we are unaware of the earth rotating around the sun at approximately 67,000 MPH, we are desensitized to the lightening-fast changes to our digital world and their social implications. The social, participatory web is enabling an informed citizenry and the democratization of knowledge and power.

At the same time, we are faced with complex, global and potentially life-threatening issues that impact our environment, economy and society. With the advancements of social media, the question that we all should be asking is: How do we organize government so that citizens can participate more fully in the decision-making and execution of initiatives that impact our lives, the lives of our children, and the future of our planet?

Democracy comes from the Greek rule by the people and it is a form of government where all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. In perspective, it is useful to remember Winston Churchill’s words: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

One of the problems we have with democracy is that citizens do not in fact have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. I see three important ways we can redesign government so that people can participate more effectively.

  1. Use Gov 2.0 to lower the transaction costs for citizens to participate fully with government
  2. Make government data open by default
  3. Ensure that government is transparent

Today, I want to comment on point 1.

1. Use Gov 2.0 to lower the transaction costs for citizens to participate fully with government

According to Don Lenihan’s public engagement framework, Rethinking the Public Policy Process, citizens participate with government in three processes: consultation, deliberation, and public engagement.

The consultation process is when citizens are consulted and public opinion is collected in wikis, blogs, Facebook pages, public hearings, telephone interviews, or online surveys, to give some examples. Then, government makes a decision based on that information. Although sometimes productive, this process is not effective when we are considering highly contentious and/or complex issues.

The deliberation process is when citizens contribute to the discussion on how to proceed with what is discovered in consultation process. Participants address issues, negotiate, seek synergies and/or compromises, and arrive at strategies to proceed in light of differing opinions. Government then makes the final decision.

The public engagement process is when citizens contribute to (or even lead/facilitate) the consultation process, deliberation process, policy and legislation decisions, and/or actions to address the issue. The public and government are partners throughout the entire public engagement process.

The social and interactive and participatory nature of Gov 2.0 makes it a natural enabler of all three forms of public involvement in government policy process. We have some good examples of consultation, deliberation, and public engagement via web 2.0 (i.e., http://www.livingwatersmart.ca/blog/, http://challenge.gov/, and http://www.federalregister.gov/), but surely this is just the beginning. We need to design government so it engages with citizens to participate more fully in making decisions and creating policy that impacts their lives.

One of the challenges we face, for example, is identity. When you log onto your bank account, the bank knows it is you who is transferring money into another account. If government had a similar high assurance of a citizen’s identity, it would enable high value Gov 2.0 services and support more effective participation for citizens. A verified identity would:

  • Allow citizens to access secure online services such as health information and passport renewal
  • Provide more credibility and lay a foundation of trust for online participants in the deliberation, negotiation, and collaboration of public policy
  • Enable online voting for public policy decisions and even the election of government representatives

We are in the midst of a digital revolution with profound social implications. Government, being one of our most entrenched institutional organizations, has a challenge and opportunity to grow with this change.

Citizens want a voice and stake in their government. They want to know government is responsive to their needs. People will no longer tolerate a secretive, paternalistic, ‘we-know-better’ government. The opportunity for government is to involve citizens and earn their trust. Real change will only occur when the public is involved and therefore willing to take shared ownership and responsibility for the issues that affect their lives.