Since the dawn of Information Society and E-Government programs, the objective of increasing transparency and citizen participation in policy-making has been high on the agenda of most countries, states and cities. Terms like e-participation, e-consultation, e-petition have been used to indicate different ways in which IT could ease the engagement in political decision-making.
The advent of Web 2.0 has increased the appetite for even greater and more effective engagement, also in view of the shifting attitude in Internet use, with more people creating content through blogs, wikis and social networks of all sorts.
Open government initiatives have provided the platform for more systematic engagement, by promoting the provision of more information, by pushing departments and agencies toward innovative ways to involve citizens in discussions about city planning, budget formulation, trash management, environmental monitoring and so forth. Mechanisms such as idea contests, unconferences, jam sessions, policy blogs and fora are proving very helpful. However, most of these are applied relatively late in the policy-making process.
Policy-making includes the following phases:
- Conception: policies are usually initiated by parliamentary or government committees. These ma be consulting with targeted constituencies (such as consumer or professional associations, unions, political parties).
- Drafting: the original idea is developed into a draft text, which usually undergoes a number of inter-departmental consultations; the outcome is a draft that is ready for public consultation
- Public consultation: the draft is exposed to the public for a general consultation.
- Finalization: the input received through public consultation is processed, together with further internal debate. The outcome is a final draft that goes through parliamentary or government discussion or both for approval.
The focus of electronic participation and, more recently, of open government has been primarily the public consultation. The main goal is to provide additional, easier and more compelling channels for citizens to be enticed to participate. With open government, there have also been modest attempts at addressing the drafting phase, by using policy wikis, and even the conception phase through idea collection initiatives.
What is still missing in most cases, though, is the use of technology much more upstream in the policy-making process. The increasing wealth of data that people put online every day provides an invaluable source of information to explore existing issues, to uncover trends, desires, sentiments that can inspire the conception of new policies. Of course creating a web site or a Facebook page or a discussion forum where citizens can propose ideas is a step in the right direction, but somewhat self selects the audience: in fact only people who have a vested interest or a passion for a particular issue will participate. But what about all the conversations where people share problems, suggestions, even solutions, which do not happen on an e-participation web site, but pop out from online communities where people socialize for reasons that have nothing to do with politics?
This is a classical example of what I call the asymmetry of open government. Rather than just creating avenues for people to participate, governments should listen to what people say in their own communities, and distill stimuli to conceive new policies.
Of course I am not advocating eavesdropping, but being attentive to where people debate in the open, and engage – once again at an individual level (civil servants and political staffers alike) – on the citizen’s own turf.
There are a few reasons why this is not happening, some good and some less good. The risk of being perceived as intruding or controlling citizen free speech is clear and present, and this is why it is up to individual employees and not to the government organizations they work for to engage.
This can be a time-consuming activity, and its ROI on the efficiency and effectiveness of the policy-making process may be difficult to demonstrate. This is why government employees’ engagement in external social networks (in the context of their job role and responsibilities) is so important, as they become the eyes and ears that are needed to advise their hierarchy and ultimately senior political leaders on the conception of new or amended policies.
I honestly believe that the problems above can be overcome. But what is a much thornier issue is the potential risk that this approach poses to those institutional counterparts to government, such as formal associations and political parties, that would see the disintermediation of the policy-making process as a threat to their own existence.
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Conceptually, this is a good idea and you do alert readers to two obvious pitfalls – accusations of eavesdropping and the possible high resource demand of listening in all the right places. I wonder though if enough emphasis is placed on these issues.
The social nature of much online conversation means its content is ephemeral, even if it is not simply trivial. This is not a criticism – these are great media for this purpose. But, I can’t help thinking that this is an encouragement to do the digital equivalent of basing policy development on BBQ conversations. While a useful source of analysis of sentiment, and functioning as an informal substitute for focus groups, it strikes me that the return is unlikely to warrant the cost.
That said, I think the asymmetry of open government is a great concept to think about and I’ll be doing that today.
PS: these are my personal opinions only.
Re your comment “policies are usually initiated by parliamentary or government committees”: this is not always (or even usually) the case.
In our democracy, many policies are dreamed up by ministerial (or shadow ministerial) staffers in a back room during a frenetic time in an election campaign. For obvious reasons, such a process won’t involve public participation.
Notwithstanding this, I don’t see anything wrong with being attuned to public discussion (or eavesdropping in a public online environment.
In November 2010 Australia’s Senator Kate Lundy gave a speech in which she described in considerable detail the approach she and her team had used in organizing a number of “publicsphere” events, focusing specifically adopting a Gov 2.0 approach to policy consultation. A transcript of her speech is available at:
Senator Lundy advocates “work in collaboration with key champions and stakeholders to fine tune the consultation draft” since this will “both improve the quality of the consultation whilst also gaining buy in from valuable contributors in the space.”
Andrea, your remarks also reminded me of a recent article in MIT Sloan Management review, “Why Project Networks Beat Project Teams”, by Jonathan Cummings and Carol Pletcher. The authors describe how “project networks” consist of a small core of team members, who then involve people
“from their personal networks who can provide knowledge, information and feedback regarding the team’s task. The project network thus takes advantage of both the project team as a whole and the personal networks of the members. Unlike a project team that relies only on the knowledge held by members or a personal network that individuals use to solve their individual problems, the project network combines the knowledge held by the members of a team with the problem-solving capabilities of the team members’ personal networks to achieve a project goal. The integration of project team members’ knowledge with the capabilities from their personal networks is what differentiates a project network from other kinds of individual and team-based work.”
This article is not about government or policy consultation, but the concept of project networks could be easily adapted to a policy consultation situation. And, as you suggest, Andrea, the outcome is strengthened through the blending of personal and professional networks and interactions.
One word I saw nowhere in this discussion is statistics.
What we are talking about doing is sampling the population (both demographic and statistical). There are rules for doing this, and we ignore them at our peril. Remember Dewey and Truman !
I spent a time working for the Audit Unit at a national UK charity trying to persuade them to observe elementary good practice in their surveys. No dice, and they made one spectacular policy blunder as a result.
Is a statistician reading this ? IF not, can you find one ?