Blog post

Why Citizen Participation May Be An Illusion

By Andrea Di Maio | December 05, 2009 | 29 Comments

social networks in government

There are great expectations about how governments will be able to leverage technology in the near future that will finally allow them to re-engage with citizens. We use different names for this: government 2.0, open government, e-democracy, e-participation. The basic assumption is that as citizen use technologies like social software to connect with each other and gather around issues and topics they care about, they’ll be able to make their voices heard more clearly and more timely by politicians and government officials.

When we look at barriers for this to happen, we usually focus on governments as the culprits. “They don’t get it”, we say, “They are risk-averse”, “They are afraid of innovation”, and so it goes.

But are we sure that citizen engagement would really work even if governments “got it” and went to great lengths to embrace social networks?

Let me share a little personal story that, although rooted in the somewhat peculiar and overcomplicated reality of my own country (Italy), may be exemplary of how the concept of engagement may remain for long more an abstraction than a reality.

In the town I live in, very close to Milan, local elections took place earlier this year. The political campaign featured the traditional political forces – a left-wing coalition that had ruled the town for many years, and a right-wing one that is the same having the majority at the national and regional level. Alongside this, there was the emergence of a “city league”, i.e. a group of citizens who were not associated with any political party, who decided to self-organize to provide an alternative to traditional politics and – indeed – re-engage citizens. It goes without saying that traditional parties won and the city league did not get a single councilor in the town council: yet it enjoyed a good success and exposure.

Up to that point the league had been run just as a group of people willing to engage with local politics to get things done. There was no structure, very little costs – entirely self-funded – and loads of enthusiasm.

As it happens in my country, the elected coalition (right wing) was unable to agree on how to share responsibilities across different members, so the new mayor resigned and there may soon be new elections. The city league is now faced with the question of how to keep going and try again at the next elections. Rather than capitalizing on the spontaneity of the first wave, the city league’s founders decided that the league needs a more formal status and must ne incorporated as an association. This implies rules, administrative obligations, processes, roles and responsibilities. It is quite likely that the willingness of many to engage on a voluntary and informal basis will be put off by the amount of bureaucracy. In fact if one needs to be formally a member of an association, then where is the difference with a traditional political party? The irony is that while one of founding principles of this city league is that participants should not be formally associated with a political party, the league is turning into a party itself.

Now, what has this to do with government 2.0 and e-participation? I would argue that forums, blogs, virtual communities can go a long way to engage people in policy issues, pretty much like the city league did However, in order to turn all these voices and interest into something that politics and governments can seriously take into account there is a need – or, better, a requirement – for some legal status, some form of organization that, for its very nature, runs contrary to the spontaneity of self-organized communities.

It is all fair and good to say that politicians and government officials will carefully listen to what virtual communities say, but until when those communities can sit at a table and have a voting right, they won’t be able to make much difference. On the other hand, in order to do so they have to morph into something more formal, more physical, more “institutional”.

So maybe all this excitement about engagement is just background noise. Over the last 25 centuries we have exercised different forms of democracy than what the ancient Greeks did (that was direct democracy) and for a reason. Representative democracy requires a level of formality that is hardly compatible with the transient nature of virtual communities. There will be hundreds, thousands of “city leagues”, but only those that turn themselves into some form of association or party will sit at the table.

One could still hope that the online engagement will determine the lifespan of these associations and lead to wind down old and create new ones. However, if history has taught us anything, it is that human nature does not change: when people sit at the table and sense the smell of power, they won’t give that up so easily.

Comments are closed


  • Nick Jones says:

    Maybe there’s also a more mundane issue here. As a cynical Brit I’m not sure that I want to spend a lot of time messing about in the details of local government. Personally I just wish my local administration would manage the basic services such as education, transport and refuse collection effectively and unobtrusively. I look on local taxes as a sort of outsourcing contract. I give the city administration money, and in return they are supposed to provide a clean, well managed city with effective services. In reality that doesn’t happen for a variety of political and financial reasons. But I still (naively) wish it would. And that means that most of my interactions with local government systems are because something went wrong, not because I really want to participate in their policy and delivery. So whatever systems of citizen participation they provide, I will still avoid and resent them because the need for participation means they failed to deliver on their part of the contract.

    I think central government is another issue. There are a lot more cases where there are genuinely difficult decisions to be made and public debate is necessary to resolve them.

  • Recently in Seattle WA a city with over 500,000 residents had an election for mayor which is a non-partisian office now.. The two highest votes after the primary were both democrats though Joe Mallahan a local IT executive was supported by nearly all of the traditional power brokers and the other Mike McGinn former president of an environmental organization and numerous grass roots campaigns ran. Joe outspent Mike (who loves to ride his bike to events) four to one and used a plethora of consultants. Mike had one paid staffer and was behind by 12% 2 weeks prior to the election but he won by using traditional grass roots campaign tactics combined with new social media.

  • Tim says:

    I’m not sure I read you correctly. It would help if you could kindly clarify how you define “citizen participation” or describe in a little more detail what “government re-engaging citizens” might entail exactly. Thanks!

    In case you’re referring to the art and science of public participation, I doubt very many practitioners live under the assumption that citizens’ (random) use of technology in and by itself will miraculously improve their impact on government decision making.

    According to one definition, public participation is “the process by which an organization consults with interested or affected individuals, organizations, and government entities before making a decision.” Very simply put, e-participation is the use of ICT for the purpose of public participation.

    Public participation has been around for a few decades now and the underlying principles are fairly well understood. E-participation and its technologies may be relatively new and constantly evolving, but the same processes apply for e-participation to be successful.

    Participation is not an illusion. The question is whether governments will increasingly commit to it and reap the benefits.

  • Tony Bovaird says:

    Normally I enjoy your posts very much but this one had me shaking my head with dismay. I think you’ve almost entirely missed the point here. Yes, many community groups and social movements will ‘go formal’ from time to time – they have that right. And, yes, many will become indistinguishable from the parties they originally formed to combat. (Of course, a few of them will go on to take over from those very parties – you have some examples in Italy!) But this is NOT the way in which most citizens, even activists, have an influence.

    We need to make a very clear distinction between ‘activists’ and ‘general citizens’. Most ‘general citizens’ are reluctant to spend much of their time making any positive contribution to civic debate or action, as Nick Jones points out very well in his comments above. However, they also resent being kept out of the debate, so they expect clear and visible invitations to participate, if only ‘arms-length’, on a reasonably frequent basis, though they will not generally take up those invitations. So it’s essential that they receive these invitations and feel included, if only at this very peripheral level. Occasionally, on issues which really switch them on, a proportion of general citizens (although usually only a quite proportion) will become ‘activists’ for a while – not necessarily for long but it is likely that for a long time afterwards they will judge the responsiveness and the quality of the public sector by the experience they have in these periods of intense engagement.

    Activists are different, of course – they know about and they care about the issues. But they often DON’T believe that they need a vote at the table. They do generally believe that they need a PLACE around the table. However, becoming formally enmeshed in ‘the system’ often seems to them to be counter-productive. We recently did a survey of a large number of high profile national and local activists in the UK on behalf of Communities and Local Government, our government department responsible for community empowerment. The majority had little involvement with MPs or local councillors, who of course DO have ‘a vote at the table’ but, as activists see it, almost no influence. Our activists had, however, huge involvement with the people they see as shaping the decisions made by public bodies – many of whom hold relatively low posts in public agencies and ministries, but write the reports which are rubber-stamped further up the decision-making chain. And our activists were VERY media-savvy. Almost NONE saw any circumstances in which they would be prepared to become MPs or local councillors, believing it would be of no value in furthering the causes and issues on which they were campaigning. (This is reminiscent of Tony Benn’s statement, when he announced that he would not stand as an MP again, that he was ‘leaving Parliament in order to be able to spend more time in politics’!) Yet these people generally have a very much higher profile than most national or local politicians and are believed by top decision makers to have an important decisions which are made in government.

    So, I would argue that the experience in your town in Italy is common but not a good guide to how the public influences decision-making. In particular, we should recognize that both the public and activists can exert important influence on those with ‘a vote at the table’ and do not necessarily have to have a vote themselves. Moreover, those with ‘a vote at the table’ may have little real influence on the debate shaping decisions. Let’s not confuse having a vote with real influence over the debate, or authority with influence!

  • @Tim: Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Let me start from your definition of participation: “the process by which an organization consults with interested or affected individuals, organizations, and government entities before making a decision”.
    I do not agree that e-participation is merely interpreted as the use of ICT for the purpose of public participation. This may have been the case in the early days of e-government, when social media were not on the horizon yet. Today, the spin that many people give to the term is one where the balance between “affected individuals, organizations and government entities” tilts toward the former.
    Indeed public participation has been around for quite a while, but it has often failed to really “engage” affected individuals (i.e. making them participate throughout the decision making process, rather than simply delegate an intermediary organization).
    Traditional participation via established organizations (as well as “activists” as Tony points out in his post) is what we have seen for decades and still see with the support of technology. The hope with web 2.0 is to disintermediate participation, to more directly connect government and affected individuals, and to cross the chasm between the abstraction of policy-making and the reality of service delivery.
    This is the type of participation that I was referring to in my post. And it is interesting that – as I suggested at the beginning of my post – you place the burden of proof on governments. The problem is that, even if they listen, they will still listen to intermediary organizations or self-appointed activists, not to me and you individually.

  • @Tony: I am glad you disagree, as the most value I get from this blog is from exploring very different veiwpoints.

    You hit the nail on the head by clearly highlighting the difference between “general citizens” and “activists”. To me, activists have always existed and they’ve always been engaged. I remember those among us in high school who were most passionate about politics, or those who take certain local issues to heart, or those parents or homeowners who will make theirs a cause to improve school meals or get a new cycle lane built in the neighborhood.
    These people indeed have no desire to become MPs or councillors, but almost inevitably need to associate themselves to some form of established organization – be it a political party, a union, a no-profit organization – to either amplify their message or get the logistical support they need.
    Actually I was not suggesting that people have to be elected to have an influence, but that they need to rely on some form of political association that, even if new and enthusiastic (like the one in my hometown), will then have a life of its own.
    The point of my post is about how to allow the “general citizen” to be engaged without having to rely on those activists. Of course, in a self-organized group of individuals who care about a particular cause, there will always be leaders who coordinate debate and possible action. One may define them activists too, but of a different kind, as they emerge from a group of people who have – as you say – no interest or desire to be constantly connected to local (or national) politics, but want to be heard on one particular topic. These are activists with an expiry date, people who will step back from being activists to be just “general citizens” again when the issue is resolved or somebody else takes the baton.
    I’m afraid that many of the “activists” we see today are more of a professional nature. It is quite interesting that you mention civil servants in public bodies: they are part of the machinery of government and – for some of them – activism is instrumental to their own career (I have been a civil servant myself and happen to know the dynamics).
    As I said also in my response to Tim, my pessimism is about the ability to establish forms of participation that do not rely on permanent organizations (parties or associations) or on self-selected or professional activists. Because, in my humble opinion, unless this happens I do not see any transformational value of technology (included web 2.0 and social media) for participation.

  • Tony Bovaird says:

    Hi Andrea

    Excellent points, and, right up to the end, I agree almost entirely with you – but I part company where you express your pessimism about “ability to establish forms of participation that do not rely on permanent organisations (parties or associations) or on self-selected professional activists”.

    Why am I more optimistic? Only partly because of the ‘transformational value of technology (including web 2.0 and social media)’ – thought I think these do indeed suggest more opportunities will be available in the future. No, I come at this from a very different angle, so it’s not surprising that I see different opportunities. As well as the huge amount of self-help (i.e. individual-driven) and self-organised (i.e. association-driven) activity in civil society, there is a huge amount of ‘user and community co-production’ of public services. This involves BOTH citizens (sometimes as service users) and public sector professionals.This is NOT only being done by ‘activists’ in any normal sense but by ‘general’ citizens (though a huge amount IS being by activists, whom we should celebrate – it always annoys me that the term has almost become pejorative in the English language!). ‘Co-production’ is endemic in most service provision, including public service provision. Of course, it’s not even noticed by many public sector professionals, and certainly not being systematically co-ordinated and supported.

    I’ve argued in my chapter in John Goetze’s latest book ‘State of the eUnion: Government 2.0 and Onwards’ that user and community co-production of public services is likely to be very significantly boosted by web 2.0 and social media. Not because it will loom out of the blue as an entirely new phenomenon, but because it has a strong existing rootstock to grow from, in the form of current practices by users and communities to co-design, co-plan, co-manage and co-deliver many public services. In the private sector, this analysis is most commonly associated with Richard Normann, in the public sector with Elinor Ostrom, the recent Nobel prize-winner. It’s a huge topic at the moment in the UK public sector – the Cabinet Office has recently published a report on it, it’s being promoted by the Treasury as a major cost-cutting approach and all the UK research councils have jointly commissioned a research project (which I’m involved in) to scope how they might design a major research programme into the scope for co-production (including web 2.0 and social media but through all other means, too).

    Although I’m disagreeing with you here, I feel it’s only honest to enter a warning. You must beware of these upbeat comments, since I’m naturally an optimist. However, I suspect from earlier posts that you are, too, which is why I think it’s worth trying to get you to reconsider!

  • Sonny Hashmi says:

    In my view, there are a couple of ancillary issues that must be overcome for true citizen engagement to carry weight within government:

    1) Digital Divide – Digital divide is more than just providing broadband access to everyone. Until everyone (or a very very large majority) of citizens use online channels as the *primary* method of engagement, a government agency cannot superimpose the will of the online community as a central part of the policy making process. Simply put, the only communities today, while vocal and visible, do not include all citizens, or even a majority of citizens, and it is not a valid assertion that if a citizen is not enaged online (via a blog or twitter or at a barcamp), then it is “their own fault”

    2) In my experience, online social behavior requires a lot more study before the voice of a “community” can be considered representative for policy making. In my experience, while an online community may be large and diverse, active participation in the community is usually limited to the vocal few. Even if one is comfortable particpating in online channels, not everyone is comfortable with being the “alpha” participant in a forum. In fact, many online channels have a sub-culture of competition for being the loudest voice and not everyone likes to play the game. For example, I follow roughly 230 individuals on Twitter. However, on any given day, I see tweets from about 20 or so consistent participants. The other 200 hardly ever say anything. If I take the sentiment represented in the twitter stream from the people I follow, I am only considering the will of 10% of the community. Does this mean the other 90% agree or just aren’t engaged? A government cannot take this issue casullay.

    I will close with an example. There was an incident in my city where a government agency saw a request come in from a prominent online citizen. The citizen also possessed a small level of official authority as a representative of a neighborhood, but the request (I believe it was to start a school bus route from a particular place to a particular school) came in as an individual. The agency immediately responded and implemented the bus route at great expense and effort, only to realize that this need was not reflected in the broader community. Not many others needed this route, there were many many other more pressing and needed routes that could have been created, and other alternatives existed to transport children rather than creating this new route.

    The losson from this story is that today, online communities are a valuable channel for government to “listen” and understand the sentiment of the wider public. However, in order to translate this sentiment into actionable policy making requires traditional bureaucratic processes, tools and due diligence that ensures that everyone’s voice is heard equally and taxpayer dollars go where they are most needed.

  • Tim says:

    Thanks for the follow-up comment.

    It’s true that the term e-participation is sometimes very broadly defined to include more grassroots, bottom-up or peer-to-peer activities by citizens. In light of that broader definition I almost agree with your post.

    This kind of self-organized activism may or may not at times have an impact on government decision making (and I’m sure there are many ways for government to try to accommodate these expressions of civic engagement better). However, the more promising approach for government to engage its citizens, in my view, is to embed public participation into its decision-making processes and governance structures.

    Under that premise, there is a lot of potential for new technologies to help accomplish that goal.

  • @Sonny – Great point to prove that a blend between tradition and innovation is the only way forward.

    @Tim – I guess we are in violent agreement on the need to embed public participation into decision making, but there are inherent issues (as Sonny has illusrrated very well) about the dynamics of social networks and the relationship between the crowd and the 10% (or less) “activists” – to use Tony’s terms.

    @Tony – I love the idea of co-creation and I have to say that yours is one the few really good papers in the otherwise boring “State of the eUnion”. My contention on co-creation, and more in general on participation, is that it is much more effectively tackled from a “service delivery” than from a “policy and decision making” perspective. Two reasons for this: (1) people will be more easily engaged on things that matter to them at the moment when they are in touch with government (i.e. when consuming a service or doing a transaction); and (2) the real incentive for governments that aim at reducing operational cost is to target service delivery, which is far more expensive than policy making (although this varies by tier and domain)

  • Tim O'Reilly says:

    Andrea –

    I think you (and a lot of people) misunderstand the nature of participation as shown by Web 2.0 companies, and the possibilities of its application to government.

    First off, I do agree that any successful participatory movement will eventually formalize itself. And it will become less vibrant as a result. Look at Wikipedia as an example where that dynamic is playing out right now, or the transition from the early, populist ebay to the later version that played to big merchants.

    This is just the nature of the beast – and why a lot of our focus needs to be on creating the mechanisms of participation that remain open to new entrants, not just the entrenched players. The best participatory tools continue to surprise us with what Jonathan Zittrain calls their “generative” power. The web keeps throwing up new surprises; new open source software projects constantly arise; people can use Meetup for whatever they want. That’s why I’ve been using the “government as platform” metaphor. A good platform is one that is generative of activity by people who don’t work for the platform provider.

    But I also think that there is a bigger topic worth bringing into the discussion of participation.

    Yes, there are explicit forms of participation, and some of them work (e.g., Open311, SeeClickFix and their ilk) and some of them don’t (White House open for questions etc.).

    But far more important – even on the commercial web – is implicit participation. Google doesn’t ask people to contribute their sites; it just crawls them. It doesn’t ask them to contribute their links; it just follows them. It doesn’t ask them to contribute their clicks; it just uses them to predict which links and which ads are more likely to be clicked on. It doesn’t ask them to contribute their voices; but it harvests them for better speech recognition nonetheless.

    There’s a huge gov 2.0 opportunity around learning from and responding to the implicit data that citizens provide. Take the current health care debate: if Medicare ran like Google, they’d be measuring what services people consume, what they cost, and what outcomes they have. They’d be adjusting reimbursements in real time to direct physicians to the most effective treatments. etc.
    Now that’s a long way off. But the first step is to start instrumenting and analyzing the data. And that’s what a lot of the open government data initiatives provide.

    Open government initiatives like allow the private sector to view government more as a platform. That’s a kind of participation that I think we’ll find really getting interesting over the next couple of years.

  • Tim,

    I am glad to see that you touch upon something that I have been insisting on for some time, that is what I call the “asymmetry of government 2.0” (see

    To me, open goverment data is to push data from government to the outside, assuming citizens will use it to do mashups etc. However what you call “implicit participation” may be more important – this is something I have covered in and is the subject of my blog post following this one.

    Where we may disagree is the balance between “open data” (inside-out information flow) and the “implicit participation” (outside-in). will certainly create opportunities for the private sector or for those that Tony calls “activists”, i.e. people who have a vested interest to use that data. But I do see governments doing very little about analyzing data that citizens collect themselves, in order to capture that implicit participation. On the other hand, if they were more active in doing so, this may also raise concerns about government “spying on us” (as I have also highlighted in
    I do not think any of us has the answer to what is most important and what has the highest priority, and I would argue that this probably varies a lot by jurisdiction, domain, tier of government. What I hope we’ll see soon is a more balanced approach where government becomes both a provider and consumer of data and where government is seen as one among many platforms.

  • Tim O'Reilly says:

    Totally agree about asymmetry. I started warning about this from my very first talks about “Web 2.0” – actually, before that, in my “Open Source Paradigm Shift” talks around 2003, about how open systems were leading to a new lock in by people who built data systems that “get better the more people use them” and are thus natural monopolies.

    It’s easy to see all this as user-empowerment, but it’s also empowerment of centralized data collectors, at an even greater scale.

    This leads to a kind of sine wave of decentralization and consolidation.

    It’s happened before in technology. The PC was a power-to-the-people moment in the 1980s, which became a king-of-the-hill moment for Microsoft in the 1990s, countered by the web as a new power-to-the-people movement, which leads us to the Google kind-of-the-hill moment, etc.

    It’s fun if you remember, as Mark Twain said, that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

  • David Hume says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, but I think it’s missing a fundamental element: the actual context in which public policy is made, and by which services are being delivered.

    A couple of key factors:

    1) Increasingly, government finds itself with demands that it ‘fix’ problems that it cannot possibly address through traditional policy instruments like legislation, regulation or taxation. Challenges like global warming, poverty, pandemic, and terrorism cannot be legislated out of existence. Globalization, the number of actors and the ‘wicked’ complexity of them mean that the only reasonable thing that can be done is to find new ways of supporting coordinated action across society–by encouraging industry, civil society, communities and indviduals to take responsibility for their own action on issues. I think we are just at the beginning of using the web to work out how to do this in a serious, scalable way. But this sophistication is coming, and institutions like government will absolutely need this tool set to manage effectively in the future.

    2) The demographic shift that’s coming in most western countries mean that government will need to find ways to deliver the same levels of service with far fewer people. In my province, British Columbia, Canada, we are expecting that 20-30% of our public servants will be leaving in the next 10 years due mainly to retirements, and that it is unlikely that they will be replaced. Meanwhile our population will continue to grow by about a million people. So we’re going to need to see some radical new thinking in terms of how we do policy development and service delivery.

    Working out models for effective participation in both policy and service delivery–since they are both intimately connected–has got to be an imperative. And it will require that government, citizens, and other stakeholders shift their views about what it means to ‘participate’. I think shortly we will see a time where it is not enough to just direct a government with recommendations. Increasingly we will see everyone concerned forced into truly collaborative relationships, where everyone bears some responsibility for taking action toward an outcome, and where all concerned are held accountable for what they contribute as well.

    Full disclosure: I’m a public servant in the British Columbia Public Service, and these views don’t necessarily represent the views of my employer.

  • First off, I’ve only read the blog post & David Hume’s comment (he’s the one who pointed me over here). So if I’m repeating someone else, apologies—it’s a busy Sunday for me.

    It seems like your core question is “is anything we’re doing via online ‘engagement’ effective?”

    To which I’d answer, “Not really.”

    But your question is entirely different from what your subject headline infers, “Is citizen participation an illusion?”

    To which I’d answer, “Absolutely not (depending on the democratic structure of your government).”

    Frankly, the online technologies activist communities and citizens have utilized for engagement are good at a few things:
    -Educating people on issues/research.
    -Helping like-minded people connect with each other.
    -Provide cathartic experiences.
    -Help organizations do list-building, fundraising, and showcasing political influence amongst citizens.

    These larger services, though, haven’t been very effective in:
    -Creating a equal value between online citizen communications and in-person communications.
    -Creating the necessary investment by a citizen to be taken seriously by lawmakers.
    -Help citizens mobilize at appropriate times, places, with directed actions.
    -Encouraging & facilitating deep engagement at higher quality levels (think, meeting in person, lobbying for a draft of a bill before session starts, etc.) —-tactics that yield better results, yet require fewer people.

    Just because web 2.0 has changed our personal lives, there’s no reasonable expectation for “gov 2.0” to change bureaucracy 1.0—-especially when that technology fails to account for they systems, habits, and personalities within the bureaucratic process of representative democracies.

    Instead of thinking that participation is meaningless, I think one has to look at the modern tools of participation and derive which of these tools are ineffective—and cast them away. Then, you need to focus in on the culture and process of a government and find the “potent-points” (as in acupuncture) and select the right tool to “stimulate” that point.

  • There have indeed been “sine waves of decentralization and consolidation” in government as well as in technology (per Tim O’Reilly above). I’d argue that the American colonies in their initial 1608-1776 (or so) formulations and embodiments were essentially decentralizers. The Hamiltonians and Federalists overturned that centrifugal approach, and began to justify and build a strong federal government – which over time has become less “federal” and more “central.”

    Jefferson as President and later Jackson tried to counter that trend, in sine-wave reemergence of the decentralizing philosophy, but Chief Justice John Marshall in particular provided too strong an argument and too profound a program against the devolution of power. Again in the 1850s decentralization reared its head sharply, under the banner of states’ rights, yet the Civil War placed devolvers bloodily on the losing side of history’s sweep.

    Through the twentieth century, the US witnessed a strong, one might argue relentless advance of central power in the hands of the federal government. Marshall would likely thoroughly approve of today’s broad powers held under centralized federal authority. But in the 21st century, reaction to that advance now has an entirely new and empowering set of technological means (e.g. Web 2.0) allowing and enabling the argument for decentralization. Tim’s sine wave might be fully in swing today.

    But I’ll note that the decentralizers never really seem to win; in fact, their cyclic successes don’t appear to be true reversals of consolidation, but a kind of ratcheting response, with a stronger centralist spiral continuing overall. Will Gov 2.0 follow the same path? I’d observe that many of the most prominent activities within the “movement” are aimed not at spinning out government data or enabling citizen-platforms, but instead at streamlining huge government bureaucracies so that their performance at their _existing_ expansive missions is improved. Making (big) government work better is a far cry from taking government more local. And when the consolidationist imperative realizes what is happening with new tools (and with untaxed Internet commerce!) I predict one robust snap-back. It took a bloody Civil War to resolve the argument the last time….

  • Gail Watt says:

    Thank you for all your blog article, Andrea, and all the fine followup comments.

    There is , I would argue a cultural perspective to our discussion we have not directly addressed. In Sweden’s traditional hierarchical political system, our cultural identity is shown – for good and evil. It has culturally conditioned our population to very much “oursource” their direct involvement. i.e. participation. But cultures evolve as, for example, our Pirate Party would demonstrate. As we go into election year 2010 here we are seeing all political parties “swedifying” Obama election techniques. I think we can expect Web 2.0, Gov 2.0 and all that is implied with those epitaphs will in fact change all our cultures, but through our respective cultural funnels.

  • @Tim O’R. @Lewis

    This is definitely a great conversation.

    If I take Tim’s analogy right, he’s equating the increasing participation of citizens made possible by Gov 2.0 to “disruptive innovation” phenomena well described by Clayton Christensen. Mainstream policy-making would be challenged by communities that in turn would formalize and become mainstream. Tim’s point is that centralization would take place when centralized data collectors prevail over “citizen developers”.

    However it seems to me that there are two distinct phenomena at play here. The first one is the tendency of “institutional” data collectors (i.e. government) to try to regain control, while the second one is the emergence of third parties, sort of new data aggregators, who may challenge or complement the role of government as the primary centralized data collector.
    My contention is that the latter will not emerge from the spontaneity of self-organized citizen communities: they will be corporations, NGOs, political parties, organized activists, i.e. entities that have always been in the business of fighting for a cause or pushing an agenda.

    The missing term of the equation in our discussion so far is “crowdsourcing”. One thing is for government to devolve some of its policy-making authority (or, better, to systematically engage in its own policy-making process) a number of identifiable entities, be they industry or consumer associations, activist groups, political parties and so forth. Another thing is to involve the “crowd”, i.e. those that Tony calls “general citizens”, who self-organize around non-professional activists, and move from one cause to another, in ways that are unpredictable, hence uncomfortable for authorities.

    I share Lewis’ pessimism about the fate of decentralization, but I am even more pessimistoc about the fate of crowdsourcing, because it does not only challenge the natural tendency of governments to centralize, but also the role and authority of a myriad of intermediary groups, which need formal rules and processes for self-preservation.

  • @SArah – I particularly like your point about “there’s no reasonable expectation for “gov 2.0″ to change bureaucracy 1.0—-especially when that technology fails to account for they systems, habits, and personalities within the bureaucratic process of representative democracies.”.
    I fully agree that we “need to focus in on the culture and process of a government”.
    Where I am a bit pessimistic (which why my title uses the term “illusion”) is in the real ability to engage people, i.e. the “general citizen” rather than the professional activists.
    Before web 2.0 there have been plenty of examples of attempts at e-participation and e-democracy, and outcome always is that people do not care. The fact that web 2.0 now helps people socialize with each other, does not mean that they will engage with government. But even where they could, I suspect that those intermediaries (I call them “professional activists”) will become the only channel fro that to happen.

  • @Gail – I love your point about culture being the key point.
    For what I know about Sweden (and other Scandinavian countries) the level of trust that people have in government services as well as the quality of those service is pretty high if compared to many other countries. This is probably the right context for government (let alone political parties) to take a leadership role in certain aspects of engagement. If the British or the Italian government tried the same, they would be doomed from the start.

  • @David – You’re right in so that new challenges (be they global issues or dramatic workforce demographic changes) will demand governments and ciizens to work together in different ways.
    In fact, one of the points that I find most interesting about Gov 2.0 – although this is not part of this particular discussion thread – is how governments can willingly involve citizens in service delivery and operations in order to increase service effectiveness and reduce costs. This is why I have been insisting for so long on the concept of “employee-centricity”, as government employees are those who are best placed to determine scope and nature of service-oriented engagement. More than a year ago I published a research note for our clients about “How Governments Can Innovate and Cut Costs at the Same Time”, where I looked at early examples of this: since then I’ve found more and more examples. While the press and most blog discussion focus on “citizen engagement” and “open government”, a quiet revolution is happening behind the scenes.
    This is one of the reasons why I welcome the report from the Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce, the first one recognizing the central role of employees

  • Steven Clift says:

    I guess I’ve been living within a successful illusion for years, except that what we’ve found far more powerful than like minds trying to influence government is when citizens who live near one another (governed and served by the same governments) come together with dislike minds, different priorities, and unique experiences and perspectives for discussions that “matter.” It is far more effective to create places online where citizens can influence each other, then the media, and finally elected official/governments (because they can’t avoid tuning into places with a critical mass of their voters) than to use tech to directly flood ill equipped political leaders with conflicting views.

    With’s “Issues Forums” (now serving 15 communities with 25+ neighborhood and community-wide forums), we are also finding that at the very local level you introduce the opportunity for civic ad-hocracy where people just start to do stuff be it a beach clean-up or launch an effort to create a community garden. Documented here in detail:

    Steven Clift

  • Steven Clift says:

    Oh, I should note.

    I am @democracy on

    And host the Democracies Online Newsire where we’ve been connecting people around the world building citizen participation online since 1998: – Join us.

  • Interesting discussion, as others have said.

    I have two points to add.

    First, every individual will have different types of engagement with government at different times, and every government will have different types of engagement with different people and on different issues.

    We must not confuse the different sorts of engagement and say that people who are ‘activists’ in one area can’t be ‘general citizens’ in another.

    Second, formalisation of these sorts of interactions is not necessarily a bad thing: creation of a set of shared rules secures the benefits of the collaboration, and I myself think that Wikipedia has, for ideological reasons, delayed the creation of a formal structure for far too long.

    However, whatever structures do get built must themselves work openly and democratically, or you will get a vicious cycle of power monopolies and distrust.

  • Ron Lubensky says:

    In Italy, take a look at “Law 69” in the Tuscan Region. It is one of the first jurisdictions in the world to embed deliberative processes in legislation.

    Basically, individuals and groups can petition a regional Authority to convene a deliberative process to solve a policy problem, especially where a public agency is involved. The Authority allocates public funding to the project, an external consultant is appointed to apply an appropriate moderated process (depending on whether it requires more stakeholder or more public deliberation) and the agencies involved have a legal responsibility to answer to the forum’s recommendations.

    This is the sort of engagement that cuts through the noise of crowd-sourcing and activism. It is intended to support representative democracy and the unelected executive.

    The introduction of online communication facilities should open such processes to easier and more convenient participation over extended periods of deliberation.

  • Don Tapscott says:

    This is a good discussion. Most discussions about government and the Internet narrowly focus on how to make government services faster and more convenient. As such they miss the much bigger opportunity to change the way governments orchestrate capability to create and deliver services.
    Not mentioned so far is that a large driver of this change is today’s youth. The children of the post WWII generation (sometimes called the baby boom) are the first generation to come of age in the digital age. Aged 13-30, this Net Generation learns, works, plays, communicates, shops and creates communities differently than their parents. Their immersion in the interactive world of the Internet and digital technology has trained them to be activists — not passive readers, viewers, or voters.
    As consumers of government services this generation has very different expectations regarding what governments should do and how they should operate. A multi-million dollar research program conducted by Texas-based nGenera, which I chair, has shown what direction this thinking could take.
    Partnerships between government and external organizations that were previously impossible are beginning to materialize, delivering new value propositions to citizens. Around the world, creative bureaucracies are partnering with companies and organizations to develop governance webs. The big wins are not achieved simply by taking the status quo online, but instead by transforming the industrial age model into digital age governance.
    The Web provides a mechanism for collaboration between any combination of public agencies, the private sector, community groups and citizens. I call these networks “Governance Webs,” or G-Webs. These G-Webs will deliver or perform activities that were once the exclusive domain of a single public agency or institution, thereby providing greater value and lower cost to the customers of government, and more engagement for the owners of government: the public.
    The challenge in creating G-Webs is that there’s enormous institutional rigidity. We won’t see profound change overnight, but over time, there’s an opportunity to change the division of labor in society. Governments will ask: “What is the best way to divide labor for the public good?”
    An excellent G-Web example is Networked Knowledge Los Angeles, a diverse partnership of public and private organizations that empowers residents to improve their communities. The cornerstone of the project is an online tool that provides easy access to a vast collection of previously obscure public data about properties and neighborhoods facing urban decay.
    Web-based tools transform this raw public data into formats that are meaningful to community residents and local policy-makers. The project looks for indicators of urban decay and plots the information on city maps posted on its Web site. Meanwhile, communities use the tools to map assets like community centers, libraries and local government offices.
    Economic and societal forces, developments in technology, and shifts in global demographics are converging to take citizen engagement in matters of governance to new levels. The idea of government-led Digital Brainstorms is one compelling idea. Engaging regular people and experts using this new technology seems a straightforward way to both promote democratic engagement and draw in expertise and new ideas to public policy. However, government culture often runs contrary to the basic premises of a Digital Brainstorm.

    In September 2006, IBM undertook an experiment in collaborative and democratic decision-making that would set a bold new course for the company. Employees from more than 160 countries – along with their clients, business partners, and even family members – were invited to join in a massive, wide-open brainstorming session it called the InnovationJam.

    IBM’s InnovationJam is just one instance by which technology, people and knowledge combine to create a strategic opportunity for more inclusive, collaborative decision making. Digital Brainstorming—now possible on a scale that was previously impossible—offers the alluring possibility that political agendas could be set in closer consultation with larger proportion a nation’s citizens, leading to greater legitimacy; that intractable problems may be solved when the collective ingenuity of a more diverse set of participants is brought to bear; or that really important organizational decisions—like setting values or strategic priorities—could be made with more broader and deeper employee and citizen input, leading to better ideas and faster adoption.

  • @Don

    Thanks for offering your perspective. You add an important element that we missed during our debate so far: new generations will have different expectations and different behaviors and engagement patterns that seem unlikely or difficult today may become common practice.

    The G-Web model is attractive as one particular crowdsourcing strategy. However in your post – I am not sure how willingly – you assume that the initiative will start from government. In fact you say “Governments will ask: ‘What is the best way to divide labor for the public good?'”. This is exactly my point: does not matter what technology is available and what generation is being targeted, engagement initiatives cannot be owned or initiated by government only. Governments have to connect with people – including young people – where people feel they want to have a conversation. In some cases that may well be something like an InnovationJam, hosted by government or some civic organization (or other “activist” group). In other cases it will emerge from on-going chatter in one or several online “general citizen” communities that may be discussing a tangential issue and suddenly mobilize to tackle a particular problem.

    All I am saying is that it is important for government not to rely exclusively on those established activist organizations (which may well create G-Webs), but also on its own employees who must be connected to those communities, able to intercept when those are ready to be mobilized or even to encourage that mobilization.

  • Very interesting perspectives! However do please distinguish between Government 2.0 and Governance 2.0.

    Government is institutional- governance need not be. Governance is larger than government and is very much driven by the stakeholders, whoever they may be in a given context. In a traditional model the government governs. With disruptive governance (after Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation), the role of the government in governing will be marginalized.

    The use of Web 2.0 in government is VERY different from the use of Web 2.0 in governance.

    Government 2.0 sees Web 2.0 apps around an “open” government, as and illustrate. It does not change what value the government provides, only changes the language of government. Which is why the irony of your Italian “city-league” eventually becomes a political party. Or in Animal Farm the Orwellian pigs become indistinguishable from humans.

    Web 2.0 is a great way for governance. It can move governance beyond the traditional democracy. It can provide a means for community driven apps that enable self-service to provide “disruptive” value (which may be contextual) – for example justice, equality, liberty and fraternity – to the community. It can even even evolve traditional democracy beyond “majority” mindsets.

    @Tim, I do not see Gov 2.0 as random apps trying to improve government – rather as focused tools to deliver that what the government fails to deliver. The government has the opportunity to reinvent itself with such apps, but if they are of little attraction to government may eventually disrupt the role governments will play in the future. Linkedin, you may agree for example, is disrupting traditional HR. No HR, ERP or CRM believed it would disrupt any of their functions when Linkedin first started out. Those apps that will work in the governance domain will NOT depend on government participation.

    I agree with Tim that there is a HUGE Gov 2.0 opportunity – but for totally different reasons. There is an opportunity to deliver the value the government does not provide and will not provide without HUGE changes in legislation, mindset and machinery. That is also the opportunity that Google tapped – What if the Library of Congress was pursuing the mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?

    In the context of governance, the power of Web 2.0 is in not just in participation but in collaboration.

    BTW Andrea I learn that you will be in Mumbai this week – will love to meet if you visit your Pune office.

  • @Anupam – Great points. We may be using the terms “government” and “governance” in slightly different ways, but you hit the nail on the head when you capture something that I’ve defined several times the “asymmetry of government 2.0”.
    Where we may slightly differ is in how that “governance” piece works. I doubt governments can do much to drive that part: they have to listen, connect and determine where they can make a difference (if any)