Anyone who is interested in using the social web to effect levels of citizen engagement is following this train of thought – and there are already many really interesting trials and pilots in place. Online is not the only potential solution to the problem of how to engage people in the democratic process but many factors make it a good place to start. However so many projects start to drift towards the 'just another website' zone rather than really looking at how to really use social media to make a difference to democracy.
Why? Because the shiny technology distracts everyone from the fact that this is all about people. The good news of course is so is democracy.
Social media makes it far more possible to interact in a meaningful way with large groups of people than traditional contact routes. This means we have the chance to involve more people, first to listen, then to discuss and then finally in the decision making process but there are a lot of ideas and structures that need to be put in place to make this possible.
Firstly we need to embrace the idea that this really is social – you can't expect the public to have relationship with 'the council' – they need to interact with actual people and this involves finding ways to equip officers and members to take part in these conversations. This is not going to be easy – there are practical problems to be addressed around how to draw boundaries around personal, political and operational issues.
There is also the question of identity – identity is malleable online with many people choosing to use a screen name. At the heart of it, democracy is about standing up and being counted – and this accountability needs to be accommodated in the online world as well.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle is how we can influence social conversations towards democratic actions. The social web is inherently self-managed and organic – people talk about the things they are interested in and it is very difficult to predict what will catch their attention (have a read of the comments on this news item on the tragic destruction of an office chair if you don't believe me – http://www.thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk/news/1151898.chair_destroyed/). But they also use blogs, Facebook and twitter to talk about local issues and civic ideas (there are some excellent examples here: http://networkedneighbourhoods.com/).
One route to influencing people is to do is overtly as part of the conversation - but whatever the content there is a real danger that by getting involved and not hitting the right tone that you can shut down the conversation or move it somewhere else. This is less likely the stronger your social capital is in a space but there is still a fine balance between enabling people to connect to democratic process and making them feel as if you are trying to influence their decision when they get there.
Another way to approach this is to build online spaces which encourage democratic behaviour. “The nudge” has been explored in a recent book by Cass Sustein and Richard Thayler (http://www.nudges.org/) and it talks about the architecture of choice. It provides real world examples of what they call 'choice architecture' which is a way of “”nudging us in beneficial directions without restricting freedom of choice”. These ideas are being looked at seriously by people and the book is worth a read.
But is it enough to nudge people to participate or do we have to face the idea that we are actually changing the relationship between citizen and government? Does using social media to influence behaviour actually influence all of the stakeholder behaviour and bring about a more co-produced decision making process? Read the book, but choice architecture needs to be used cautiously so that it is not just another attempt to control the process.
Co-production describes a state where decision making is truly shared. NESTA / NEF have recently published a discussion paper which talks through many of the issues of co-production which is describes as “a new way of thinking about public services has the potential to deliver a major shift in the way we provide health, education, policing and other services, in ways that make them much more effective, more efficient, and so more sustainable. (http://www.nesta.org.uk/areas_of_work/public_services_lab/assets/features/the_challenge_of_co-production).
So the question is it possible to build online spaces which can be architected in order to bring about a new relationship between citizens and government where decision making is shared? What would these spaces look like?
- A special thank you to Catherine Howe, Operations Director for Public-i Group. http://www.public-i.info/
Picture: The front cover of the book 'Nudge' by Thaler and Suatein. The cover is white with a large grey elephant nudging a smaller elephant, with thanks to .nele for publishing on Flickr under a Creative Commons license some rights reserved.
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