I have been visiting several different countries over the last three months, and almost anywhere I have had some interesting discussions about the genuine efforts that governments are making to increase transparency and citizen participation.
Motivations are different and they range from compliance with open government policies to unexpected election outcomes or furthering one-off experiences with social media. However the nature of the problem they are trying to solve is the same: how can we listen to citizens, give them a voice, anticipate their reactions and engage them in policy-making and problem solving?
These questions assume that citizens are willing to participate and that on-line engagement is the way to achieve this more effectively.
But is it true?
For sure there are people who are more concerned and passionate about participating. Some of them are active in politics, others just follow with interest political debates and others are willing and available to volunteer time and effort to help.
But there are also people who believe that the reason why we have a government is for somebody else to take care of all that. So, even if they take their voter’s rights and obligations quite seriously, they also assume that by voting they have outsourced policy-making and service delivery to those who have been democratically elected and the public services that fall under those representatives’ responsibility.
It is not because people use social media and connect to friends on line to discuss about many topics that they become eager to participate. This is why, for how many efforts governments are making on open government or government 2.0, they are struggling to achieve mass-participation.
Now, if this is true, there is a second, more insidious problem. If online participation engages only a fraction of the population, but – at the same time – it starts influencing the way policies are developed and service designed and delivered, isn’t this creating a new divide between those who do participate and those who do not? The latter would still express their opinion through periodic elections and through their delegates and representatives, depending on the specific political system. But the former would start influencing processes and positions along the way.
Who would then ensure the balance between those who influence the system by active online participation and those who simply rely on democratic representation? This is potentially creating an imbalance between a new breed of “haves” and “have-nots”, compared to which any digital divide consideration simply pale.
We can see sparkles of this in the way open government and government 2.0 are developing. It is just a bunch of expert, passionate and converted people who animate and drive the debate, both inside and outside government. Still the word has not been spread and understood by the masses, be millions civil servants or billions citizens. On the contrary, some of the government 2.0 debate has become a bit stale, has lost momentum and – even in places where its value has been proven – it risks losing steam.
The prospects are grim indeed. On the one hand, it is difficult to reach the tipping point that make open government an overwhelming success, almost a “must-have”. On the other hand, even if it did, we are not sure about how to manage the implication of a “participation divide”.
Then the question is: should we just give up and consider open government and government 2.0 an interesting, nice-to-have, but hard-to-sustain development, and perhaps let it die?
Not at all, but we need to change its perspective, make it less about policy-making and more about involving people in helping where government cannot.
Where democratic systems are mature and functioning, online participation should be brought back within boundaries where accountability can be managed. It should become one channel, but not at all the preferred one, for democratic engagement.
On the other hand, where problems cannot be solved with traditional processes, due to lack of resources, severity of a crisis, need to react very fast, then government 2.0 can provide a set of additional tools to address those problems in new ways. But this does not mean that these ways need to be recognized and endorsed beyond solving those emergencies.
It will take time, a lot of time to distill which elements of what we call government 2.0 today will become part of new, established democratic processes tomorrow.
For today, let’s care a bit more about how citizens can be a resource and platform for governments that are struggling with their own sustainability, and a bit less about how government should be a platform for the few who have the motivation and resources to use it for their own benefits.