Thursday, June 26, 2008

Are We Ready for E-Democracy?

Steve Clift recently published a thought-provoking article called, “Sidewalks for Democracy Online,” part of the Personal Democracy Forum’s “Rebooting Democracy” series. Steve is a long-time proponent of “e-democracy” – creating government of and by the people – not just for the people, using the internet. I’m with Steve. Involving citizens in the work of government in meaningful ways is the right thing to do. We should have online forums. We should create online work sessions allowing citizens to interact with their government to define issues and solve problems. We should use social networking options and wikis to bring government and citizens together. We should draw on the energy and ideas and talents of the public to improve the work of their government. But I wonder…are we ready for e-democracy?

Is there enough real interest among citizens – beyond the advocates – in being involved in government to make it worth the cost? Is the government (at least the federal government) ready to take this on – to change its culture - even with a President who is behind it? Is Congress ready to fund it (because we all know that unfunded mandates never last)? Are we ready to do the kind of promotion that it will take to change the skepticism of the American people?

Let’s be honest - the current culture of the federal government – like it or not – is very authoritarian. It’s, “we know what’s best for you.” Come on, feds…when was the last time you were encouraged to go out and listen to citizens? Sure, we take comments on proposed rules; but don’t we sometimes put more energy into rebutting them than embracing them? Aren’t we more likely to pull out that regulation or handbook and tell a citizen, “no” than to talk with that citizen about options?

And on the other side...many citizens want their government to be all-knowing. They want to trust their government to give them the right answer. So – to some – creating e-democracy might cause dissonance. “I’m so glad you listened to and adopted my idea, Government; but that means you weren’t completely right in the first place. If that’s true in this case, is it true in others? Can we really trust you to be right? I thought we were paying you people our tax dollars so you can solve these problems.”

Actually, e-democracy is not a new concept for government. Many agencies made attempts in the past. In the late 90s, we jumped all over the online discussion possibilities at HUD. We had a number of discussion rooms, both for HUD partners and for citizens. Some were around specific topics. Some were pretty much wide open – “let’s talk about what citizens can do in their communities to make them better.” What we found – nearly across the board – is that we got very little citizen participation; and those that did participate often used the discussion rooms to ask specific questions about HUD programs. There really wasn’t much discussion.

The bigger problem was managing the discussion rooms. Though a HUD employee was responsible for each discussion room, too often they didn’t visit the rooms regularly. Thus, we’d see nasty comments from people who had asked questions that weren’t answered or discover other participants (non-government) giving wrong information. We also saw discussions going way off track; and in a couple of cases, we saw small groups of regulars basically hijack the discussion room for completely different purposes. Managing discussion rooms is a workload item that needs appropriate staffing. Without that staffing – we learned - they fail.

E-democracy could work. What would it take?

  • A change in culture. A President who makes it a priority, gets Congressional backing, creates the policies, dedicates the resources, and holds government employees accountable – from top to bottom – for results.
  • A change in values. Government managers and staff have to be rewarded for listening and discussing alternatives with the public – involving them in the process. They have to value a new way to do business.
  • Planning. Agency executives have to incorporate e-democracy in their management plans. They have to allocate appropriate (underscore “appropriate”) staff to engage in online forums, analyze and respond to citizen questions, take action on the solutions that are generated, and follow up to let citizens know what became of their ideas so they’ll want to participate again.

For our part, web managers need to think it through. We need to prepare. We need to use our experience to identify potential pitfalls and be ready with solutions. We need to develop practical implementation strategies based on a realistic assessment of resource needs; so if we’re asked, we can propose a sound, thoughtful, realistic method for ensuring success. We need to do this as a community - engaging those with knowledge, experience, and ideas - so we all can succeed.

E-democracy is a concept that is gaining attention from both parties. It’s a good thing. Are we ready?