Is There an Elephant in the Room?


I speculated that one of the greatest barriers to Gov 2.0 was institutional deafness. Nobody is listening. The result is Citizen Shock, if nobody is listening whay are we doing this? In fairness, there’s more to it than that, of course there is. Hindman’s “Myth of Digital Democracy” points to a very important one, citizen voices are hard to find, if you can’t find them, you can’t hear them.

There isn’t much in the arena of Web 2.0, Social Media, Gov20 that you could call really bad, as in of negative impact, by and large. There is much that we could term cynical, but on the whole people who operate in this space are a good crowd, they mean well. Day by day, the things I hear, read about and see have within them at the very least a direction of travel that is good. The people I come across are committed, enthusiastic, and intelligent all in all an impressive crew.  That said, all of this aspiration for communication, dialogue, citizen voice and transparency isn’t coming together, each remains on its own pathway, travelling in the right direction but not converging. We have a convergence of technology but not a convergence of ideas and I can’t see where people are really talking about it. It’s like there is an elephant in the room and everybody is pretending it isn’t there. Governments at every level are appearing to be more transparent; citizens are shouting louder but in the end its business as usual.

The Silicon Flatiron post  was relevant because they were debating something that not many other people are: how does everything digital and gov fit together and why isn’t it working? We need to be asking the kinds of questions that the Silicon Flatiron group were asking however, and this might sound harsh,  in this case the discussion and their conclusions shows the muddled thinking and misunderstanding that goes someway to explaining why we don’t get the convergence of ideas.

Are there barriers, if so, to what?

The Flatiron Roundtable identified transparency and efficiency as a benefit of what they call Gov 3.0: I assume that Gov 1.0 was old gov, Gov 2.0 was e-gov and now Gov 3.0 is…well what is it if all it delivers is transparency and efficiency? It’s government enabled by Web 2.0 technology; come on guys, Web 2.0 can deliver a whole lot more than transparency and efficiency? While the Roundtable group identified barriers to progress: regulation, privacy concerns and culture, I’m not sure that these are the barriers ought to be worried about.

Are there expectations, if so, of what?

I would question the statement that “because web 2.0 technologies are pervasive in the private sector, individuals expect to use such tools when interacting with government”. Says who? Published estimates put the number of non ICT users at about 30%, that leaves 70% of whom a proportion will be occasional users – shopping and flights – there will be some of the remainder who will possibly use one or more social networking sites, acquire downloads, play games, the rest will be sophisticated users of on line resources. Where does it say that there is an expectation that government will be accessed this way? The majority of people, when asked how they want to access Government services will say “telephone” focussing on the convenience, not the social added value. It so happens that the people who use government services the most are also the people least likely to be digitally engaged. Government may well be beginning to respond but they are responding to a minority who are not the big users of their services. There are big assumptions here about digital inclusion and it’s time to start “inclusion proofing” as a matter of course.

Who is communicating with whom, and what are they saying?

Technologies can increase communication between government and its citizens, and this may give us a clue to the statement about transparency and efficiency, this is one way communication. You don’t need web 2.0 to do this – you can do this with a town crier and get a better response from the people. Web 2.0 is more than this and we ought to be discussing it with a view to its full potential. It’s true that if the public does not like what the government is saying it can vote them out the next time – the power of the ballot box – but there is a fundamental problem with this approach. Web 2.0 is about dialogue; here we are talking about one way communication, government to citizen. What information ought to be in the public domain? Well, all of it, surely. Everybody will cite privacy issues and the impact of unintended consequences. These are real concerns but they are data protection issues, not web 2.0 issues. How should information be released given the issues around data, ownership, presentation and propriety? All of these things are approached from the perspective of one way communication, from government to the citizen. In an environment where the objective is to inform so that sensible dialogue can take place then the regulations that are seen here as a barrier are actually enablers. By applying the principles of regulation, compliance and data protection the way is clear for public access and as the information is held by a public body, financed from the public purse then, outside of the regulations there is no decision to be made on what the public should see – it’s their information. A dialogue, a true dialogue on what the concerns of the citizen are should inform the way in which information is presented and then it doesn’t matter who does the formatting or who owns the application.

Is there a challenge, if so, what is it?

The challenge was identified by the Flatiron Roundtable as getting employees to interact with each other, share ideas and adopt best practices…. to use technology prudently to improve transparency, efficiency, and citizen interaction. There is some muddled thinking here, let’s be clear what it is we are discussing: Government being transparent and efficient, government reaching out to citizens, citizens with the tools to speak to government. It’s not just in this roundtable discussion. Participants in this arena frequently move from one thing to another without being clear what it is they mean and then it’s all lumped together under the heading of Gov 2.0 or Gov 3.0. I would question the assertion here that the challenge is technology adoption by employees. That ignores the “too hard to do pile” which is citizens with the tools to speak to government and government with the ability to listen and respond.

Does the solution need to be owned?

When talking about citizen engagement the Flatiron Roundtable felt that government should “Appear receptive to individual comments” I disagree. They should “appear” nothing, they simply should be receptive. Yes, this is about “Keeping citizens updated and knowledgeable” – but once again that is about outgoing messages. It’s important to separate out the idea of instant referendum from the idea of a contribution. Groups naturally form around shared issues not around debate. Any government or corporate body will want to control the flow of information in and out. This has to go beyond the idea of involving citizens by “giving them ways to report emergency situations or issues”. The desire to control input via “sentiment analysis, third party manipulation and mandatory self-identification” is about controlling bad news and nobody likes to hear bad news. The Flatiron roundtable assumes a hierarchical, top down organisation, in fact it sees this as necessary when in fact what we should be talking about is shared information, matrixed management and transformed, innovative organisations which means bottom up. This is about owning the solution. Government does not need to own the solution.

Have faith in the people, trust them to do it; educate (a new phase of digital inclusion) if the voices of innovation are crowded out by the voice of dissent maybe we’re not making our intentions clear OR maybe we ARE doing something wrong. Hindeman says that citizen voices are not heard because they’re too hard to find, the power curve rules as does the Googlearchy. Why not invite the citizen voices to find you? The underlying assumption that we have to shout loud enough to be heard and then we are ignored because nobody can find us cannot apply if we are to have true dialogue it’s time we were invited in.


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