Virtual Tools for Participation

“Public participation…is (a) realm in which other countries are advancing beyond the United States, turning us from a leader to a follower in democratic innovation.”  Thus begins an information-ladden short response to the White House’s request for “thoughts” about the US Government’s Open Government Initiative.  It contains good information to develop participatory networks.

I’ve cringed as I followed Obama’s unskilled moves with major initiatives such as responses to the financial crisis and his health care plan. This is a man who is called a community organizer??? He has so bought into “representative government” as “inner beltway” (Washington DC) discussion (polite way to describe the volleys between camps). I have been astonished at the contrast with his engaging campaign. Wouldn’t a few million dollars have gone a long way to enhance innovation and support for change, by creating a national, locally-based conversation on critical issues and get them out of the clutches of entrenched politicians?

The paper is the product of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDD) and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  The DDD is an alliance of organizations and scholar working in participatory engagement.  The NCDD is a great network that promotes participative learning and collaboration.  It is pushing the boundaries of practice and building capacity;  see its impressive resource center

A few years ago I went to the meeting of the Canadian counterpart of the NCDD, the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation.  Canada has a long history of community consultation, most notably through “commissions” that roam the country to collect citizens’ thoughts and spur action.  At the meeting I was very impressed by both the large number of participants from government, and the sophistication of their participation strategies.  (Confession:  I hold Canadian and American passports.)

So what’s happening in the United States?  The Open Government Initiative is a modest step forward “…to make government more transparent and more accessible, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives, to solicit public participation in government decision-making, and to collaborate with all sectors of the economy on new and innovative solutions.”

The steps in this National Action Plan (September, 2011) are rather modest, but represent progress.  Most action listed to date falls into the pre-web 2.0 world – the world of one-way communication.  It’s about making information more available and eliminating unnecessary reporting.  The next steps are more in the same direction, enhancing transparency, improving access to information, and putting a toe into 2.0 world with:  on-line petitioning, participation metrics, improved public participation in development of regulations, better web-sites and promoting virtual communities.  It really makes me realize that it’s not that the virtual sphere in the US is uninteresting – but it sure lacks an engaged government presence.  It also makes me wonder how “open government” became equated with “virtual government”.  Surely virtual communications have to be integrated with face-to-face if they are going to be at all robust.  One of the documents referenced in the NCDD response comments:

“While this report focuses on online engagement, it is important to note that working productively with the public also requires face-to-face engagement. The two forms of communication have unique strengths and limitations: nothing can beat the convenience and choice of online tools, and nothing can beat the emotional impact of a face-to-face conversation.” – Using Online Tools to Engage the Public

In any case, you should look at the DDD-NCDD submission if you’re interested in getting ideas about participation metrics, and virtual participation tools and strategies.  It is a great summary of the latest and best in America – and there is a tremendous amount of innovation, even if the federal government is behind times.  I like Use “serious games” to generate interest, understanding, and input, found in “Using Online Tools to Engage the Public”.  It is part of a 10-step stage approach to tools.

Support the DDD-NCDD submission with a comment on their site.  Tell us below what resources might you like to tell others about? 

Comment from Matt Leighninger,  Executive Director –Deliberative Democracy Consortium

I don’t think the Canadians, unfortunately, have been too far ahead of the US in public engagement–with the current government, things are pretty quiet up here right now on the participation front. I think Brazil and India are the leading democratic innovators these days – John Gaventa’s pieces (like Reversing the Flow and the big report he wrote with Gregory Barrett So What Difference Does it Make?  Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement).
I agree with you about the limits of transparency, and the sad contrast between the Obama Campaign and the Obama Administration. I’m attaching a couple other things you might like – There’s More to Engagement than Transparency, and Vitalizing Democracy Through Participation

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