Poking our way to participation

Brookings examines social media

Editor's Note: Urged on by the Internet savvy Obama administration, federal agencies are haltingly figuring out how to bring citizens into their decision-making processes. They are realizing that many people outside of government are authorities on various topics but remain unable to contribute their expertise. Now so-called Web 2.0 social networking applications are offering ways for agencies to find these experts and tap into their insight. But as law professor Beth Simone Noveck observes in her new book, agencies have a long way to go in becoming adept and comfortable with it. Here is an excerpt from her new book, edited slightly for magazine style.

About this except

Excerpted from "Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful" by Beth Simone Noveck. Pages 142-145. Copyright 2009 by Beth Simone Noveck. Reprinted with permission of the Brookings Institution.

Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has to draft an air quality criteria document — a preliminary assessment of air quality — before setting national ambient air quality standards. Instead of turning to seven agency-selected experts for help, as it does now, it could consult a network of self-selected as well as invited online advisers.

In developing its assessment, the EPA could put relevant queries to the scientific community. Experts could invite other experts. The consultation could take place both early in the process and again once the document is drafted.

Law professors Josh Eagle, James N. Sanchirico and Barton H. Thompson Jr., participants in Breaking the Logjam [an October 2008 non-governmental conference and series of policy proposals], suggest that to mitigate problems of overfishing, damage to marine habitats, accidental mortality of nonfished species and other challenges to the health of our seas, a high-level ocean commission could institute a program of comprehensive ocean zoning.

In this plan, commercial fisheries, recreational fishermen, conservationists and other stakeholder groups would assume responsibility for different ocean zones.

Now imagine that we apply a collaborative approach to this interesting proposal as well. The ocean commission might usefully set up a process and online platform for each of these stakeholder groups to develop policy, to solicit information and feedback, and thereby to take responsibility for managing its zone of the ocean in an informed, open and expert fashion.

In devising these practices, we have to remain open to all forms of technology, even those that initially seem trivial or irrelevant. Potentially, ubiquitous social-networking technologies like Facebook and MySpace, in which participants “friend” and “poke” those in their personal networks, can teach us more about the idiom of participation than the legalistic practices in which so few of us actually participate.

Social-networking sites have not directly produced political action (any more than putting a political slogan on a bumper sticker does). Though candidates and interest groups have Facebook pages and even storefronts in Second Life, these are still window dressing. As the technology theorist Danah Boyd comments, “Typical [social-networking] participants are more invested in adding glitter to pages and SuperPoking their ‘friends’ than engaging in any form of civic-minded collective action.”

But these technologies constitute a milestone in the history of citizen participation because they make it easy to create and join a group. The organizers write up and post a short description of the group’s goals and decide who will have the power to administer membership. They can set up a discussion board, send messages to the group, and post videos and other content at no cost. (Stephen Colbert’s short-lived presidential bid, 1,000,000 Strong for Stephen Colbert, achieved its membership goal in nine days.)

Even though such groups are not designed for real group action, nonetheless the individuals who use them are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of social interaction and learning. Members share knowledge and expertise. Because the screen displays social relationships among participants — sometimes called social graphing (A is friends with B) — participants are not only made aware of existing friendships but also use these connections to create new communities of affinity. Thus, these sites are shifting the focus from individual to community and laying the groundwork for collaboration.

Subhed: A Legal Framework for Transparency

The social tools of Web 2.0 are increasing the granularity and embeddedness of social groups. With today’s technologies, I can join a group by putting a pushpin on a Google map. Instead of simply contributing money, I can give to a cause by tagging a patent, a photo or a piece of text on the Web. I can write an entry in Wikipedia and debate it on the discussion boards there. I can find prior art for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and discuss it with other self-nominated experts. This variability of embeddedness is spilling over into the world of government institutions.

The legislative framework for transparency, by itself, has not produced a transparent government. The introduction of new technology and new ways of thinking about information geared to groups may yield a more open administration. Similarly, the legal framework for participation has enshrined the right to participate in theory but not in practice. Now technology can be designed for a richer array of citizen participation than reformers have traditionally envisioned.

And cultural changes are making it more likely that, if asked, the public will participate. People are increasingly accustomed to loose collaboration across a distance by means of social networking, video games and other tools. Employment trends may also have an impact on the millennial generation’s willingness to get involved.

Arguably, because young people are accustomed to changing jobs, they will be more likely to join new groups. Of the jobs that workers began when they were ages 18 to 22, 72 percent of them ended in less than a year, and 94 percent ended in fewer than five years. This mobility and flexibility, combined with changes in technology, will inevitably have an impact on the practices of government participation.

When asked to apply what he had learned about collaboration at IBM to improving England’s National Health Service, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the retired chief architect of IBM’s Internet strategy, commented, “The more I think about it, the more I have become convinced that the only counterbalance to physicians, politicians, payers and other powerful institutions are properly organized communities of patients, their families and caregivers.”

Unlike the new New Dealers, Wladawsky-Berger imagines that successful participation is possible as a means to solve the crises of the health care system.

He goes on: “A participatory governance model would have been very difficult to implement only a short time ago. Such a model requires that all those working together have access to the information they need to make decisions, as well as having an effective means of communicating with each other. The Internet and World Wide Web have changed all that. They have enabled the more distributed, collaborative governance style being embraced by leading-edge organizations.”

Despite the absence of universal success with citizen participation practices in government either before the Internet, when they were impractical, or since, when they continue to be hamstrung by the limited vision of what citizens can contribute, participation is both possible and desirable.

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