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.