The Digital Detriment

Reflections on what might have been

Citizen Shock

Citizen – Citizenship is the state of being a citizen of a particular social, political, or national community. – Citizenship status, under social contract theory, carries with it both rights and responsibilities. “Active citizenship” is the philosophy that citizens should work towards the betterment of their community through economic participation, public service, volunteer work and other such efforts to improve life for all citizens. In this vein, schools in some countries provide citizenship education. – Wikipedia

Shock – Acute stress over reaction (also called acute stress disorder, psychological shock, mental shock, or simply, shock) is a psychological condition arising in response to a terrifying event. It should not be confused with the unrelated circulatory condition of shock. – Wikipedia

Two things have prompted me to commit these thoughts to print: the idea that Social Media is nothing more than an enabler for Gov 20 – a comment doing the rounds of #Gov20 last week – and the idea that people have disengaged from politics and need to be somehow re-connected.

There is a fundamental difference between England and much of the free world – we are a subject nation! We are all subjects of the Crown. This can be quite a leveller; just as I’m a subject so the Prime Minister and the Government are all subjects. Of course, some are more subjected than others. When America declared independence it established for itself an important principle:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That self- evident truth is not written down in England. Don’t mistake me, I have more freedom than many people in the world: freedom to speak, and the right to vote  – I value those things, I appreciate the country in which I live, I am a loyal subject – but I have them because they are granted to me, not as an unalienable Right.

The other element to being a subject nation is that everything is undertaken in the name of the Crown. This is an important distinction. The American Constitution begins:

“ We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

That simple phrase, “We the People” is pervasive. In American courts it is The People versus, in England it’s The Crown versus; in America it’s the United States Government, in England it’s Her Majesty’s Government.

These perceptions are so embedded into our National psyche that it’s influencing the way we talk about Gov 20 and the way in which we evaluate the impact of Social Media. To suggest that Social Media is simply an enabler for Gov 20 is to suggest that it has no value outside of engaging and enabling. The current obsession with data and apps is great, raw data presented to citizens in new ways that are useful and enabling. The new openness is great, once hidden documents now as open source wikis brilliant! But it’s not enough! What has happened to our desire for citizen voice, to let people be heard and listened to? Where did the dialogue go? The truth is that it’s not the people who have disengaged from politics, its politics that has disengaged from the people. It’s not we who have to be reconnected, it’s government.

The talk is of transformed government, efficient, accountable and non-interventionist. Services will be personalised and wherever possible localised. The enabling mechanism will be information technology, it will be the delivery mechanism, the organising force and it will be the channel of choice. Government at every level will speak to the citizens through their channels of choice and the citizens will interact with government in a way that is convenient, anytime, anywhere – Martini government.

The vast majority of statutory services (provided by government agencies or private sector partners) are consumed by less than thirty percent of the people. This thirty percent (let’s not argue about definitive figures now) the final third are also those who use technology the least for all sorts of reasons and so the idea of Digital Inclusion was born. There is some amazing work in the field of digital inclusion, work with individuals and work with communities. It is helping to create community cohesion, build social capital, grow innovative, bottom up solutions to local issues; but is it re-connecting the people with politics? Is it giving the people a louder voice? Whether you are in America or in England, or any other country for that matter I would suggest no, it isn’t – because nobody is really listening.

The Politics of Government long ago gave way to the Politics of Power. We are no longer governed by a set of beliefs which we hold to be true and which we put forward to be debated and evolved.  Politics is about keeping power and that has led our establishments to become hierarchical, inward looking, focussed on command and control and outbound messages.

 In hierarchical organisations the direction of the information flow is down, through the organisation. The impact of the command and control mentality is the creation of a series of glass filters. This means that only positive messages get fed upwards and problems are solved or managed at the base of the organisation. Such organisations tend to be inward looking, focussed on self promotion. The impact of being an inward looking organisation is seen in the need to own and to brand the channels of delivery. All messages from a hierarchical organisation will be outbound. They will advertise success. Hierarchical organisations find it hard to be innovative. Ideas flow down the command and control chain and not upwards. Innovations have to be branded and there is no recognition of the individual or group, so why innovate?

Invariably this organisation will want to maintain a status quo so, by definition, it will be protective of itself and its processes. In so doing this approach will reinforce the lack of innovation and focus the organisation in on itself. These organisations are dysfunctional organisations. The inability to change and to transform means that they cannot easily adapt and learn. In these circumstances people disengage and resort to the organisation only when they have to.

The rapid emergence of Social Media technologies over the last two years has given a new channel for the expression of citizen voice. Through the new channels of interaction knowledge can be shared, interest groups can form, quickly and easily. A collective voice can make a louder noise. The citizen voice wants to be heard, but the old hierarchy, focussed as it is on outbound messages and looking in on itself is incapable of listening. The result is Citizen Shock, a growing recognition that the world is not how it is meant to be, a sense of shouting in the wilderness or raging against the storm. There is a disconnect, but it is not of the citizen’s making.

An organisation that has the potential to transform is less hierarchical, it has empowered individuals and groups at every level, it embraces change and it uses continuous, targeted, two way communication; does this sound familiar? The potential of social media amongst citizens is that it creates groups of shared interest, shared knowledge and a common voice that holds the potential to be innovative. Information flows across the loose organisation and ownership is shared amongst the crowd. Groups look outwards, seeking to draw in membership, or to gain new knowledge and insight. Learning organisations hold social capital and social capital supports innovation.

Hindman’s “The Myth of Digital Democracy” and Flichy’s “Is The Internet An Instrument Of Democracy?” (la vie des idees.fr )make for depressing reading. I believe that it is government that has to change, at all levels. It’s not enough to have a presence on “Twitter” or a “Facebook” page when all that is doing is giving an impression of dialogue when in fact it’s a cynical marketing ploy and the messages are still outbound. It’s not the people who need to re-connect, its government, and until it realises that it cannot re-connect and stay the same the people’s voice will be ignored.

The good news is that shock doesn’t last forever.

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This entry was posted on August 28, 2009 by in Politics and tagged , , , , , .
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