Yesterday the Obama administration took important steps toward open government.
The first one was the announcement of how the citizen engagement process in policy-making will work.
As explained on the White House Open Government Blog:
“…Beginning today, we will have a brainstorming session for suggesting ideas for the open government recommendations. You can vote on suggested ideas or add your own.
Then on June 3rd, the most compelling ideas from the brainstorming will be fleshed out on a weblog in a discussion phase. On June 15th, we will invite you to use a wiki to draft recommendations in collaborative fashion.
These three phases will build upon one another and inform the crafting of recommendations on open government.”
While the current experiment is limited to the definition of open government itself (a topic that may not attract the general public as much as the administration thinks), it will be anyhow a good testbed to see whether the process works.
It is very possible that the effective White House media machine will be able to attract enough people to make this and future consultations and participatory policy drafting a success.
My take on this, though, is that real participation and real transparency will not happen until when governments stop pulling people onto government turf (be it a Town Hall or a sexy web site), and start reaching out to them on their turf. In electronic terms, this means to join existing on-line communities, social networks, blogs and understand what are people’s pain points in certain areas, what makes them tick and be willing to engage.
The Obama administration’s steps in e-democracy, that many commentators celebrate as historical, may just create a different elite of e-participants and e-lobbyists. And not even so different, as one may notice by looking at which proposals are getting the best scores and where they come from.
One thing is to provide a better channel to people who have an interest in politics, and probably capture more of them.
Another thing is to engage people who are not interested in politics, but do feel strongly about certain issues and are ready to debate them with friends and colleagues as well as in their Facebook or LinkedIn or MySpace groups.
The intent of engaging people is very noble, but the execution is underwhelming. There is plenty of time for improvement, of course. Otherwise all these fancy web sites will suffer from the same problem as most government web sites do: people just don’t care.