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.