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.

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2 thoughts on “How do we organize government so that citizens can participate?

  1. Pingback: Gov 2.0 and Vancouver Riots | siliconvalleynorthof49

  2. Pingback: Government In The Lab | Government In The Lab

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