Imagine that you are Annie Young, an elected member of the Minneapolis Park Board. As we say in the United States or at least in the White House, you’re a “Decider.”
You’ve just returned home from a Park Board meeting and you’re sitting in front of your computer at 10 p.m. and … where the Board voted to bring Dairy Queen, the first commercial chain, in to run the concessions at Lake Harriet Park – the crown jewel of local parks.
During the meeting you noticed that not many people were in attendance and no one from the daily newspaper was covering the meeting. Oh, and you are a Green Party member and you didn’t agree with the move.
So you fire up your e-mail and post a message to the hundreds of members on the Minneapolis Issues Forum. You share the facts about what was decided and you simply ask “What do people think?”
Bad ice cream.
Don’t commercialize our public spaces.
Hey you white liberals, let us have our soft serve.
If the city is losing money on concessions, why not?
The next day the conversation raged on. The Minneapolis StarTribune realizing that it missed a big story and splashes it in the front of the Metro section, quoting heavily from online participants.
We even discovered via the forum that the reporter with that beat requested to cover the meeting, but was denied by her editor. The sad fact is that media seems to have fewer and fewer resources for in-depth local coverage.
A couple weeks later, something dramatic happened. The Park Board reversed its decision in front of one of the most packed Board meetings in their history.
Where is the online forum for your local community?
A forum that brings together local citizens using their real names from across the political spectrum? A forum for active agenda-setting and facilitation and rules that promote a relatively civil ongoing exchange.
Can you log on from anywhere at any time to have your say locally in your town? A place where “of course” you expect the Mayor and most of the elected officials to be listening? Where “of course” discussions help form public opinion and jump to the mass media frequently?
Perhaps some of you can. Most citizens have no such option. You might have a couple anonymous local bloggers with axes to grind or forums on a local media websites where sports talk dominates.
Just like we now expect most local communities to have public parks or many communities to have Rotary or Lions Clubs, some day we will all, we must all come to expect local online public spaces that helps us not just have a voice but also to help us meet public challenges.
Our challenge is to build that public expectation.
The official title of my speech is Citizens 2.0.
(I’ve been told that IAP2 uses the term public, so I want to clarify that I use the term “citizen” in an empowering and inclusive “citizens of the world way.” To me citizens, even those without “legal citizenship,” own their governments and create power versus being served as customers or clients.)
But before I talk about Citizens 2.0, let me tell you a bit about Governance 2.0.
You might call me a bit confused.
I’ve been on two tracks since the early 1990’s. With other citizens, I founded E-Democracy.Org in 1994. We created the world’s first election-oriented website. When the election was over people kept talking in our forum.
I also worked in Minnesota state government and ran North Star, our state’s web portal.
Up until last month really, I have been government by day and citizen by night.
While I left Minnesota government in 1997, most of my consulting and public speaking was for governments around the world (25 countries now, and with Estonia in two weeks, 26). I’ve worked with governments seriously interested in using the Internet to gather input from citizens – as I say not to just collect taxes online but to also give citizens a say online about how those taxes should be spent.
Perhaps during the Plenary, I’ll be able to share some examples, but I’ve been tracking government e-participation projects and best practices as my “job” and then donating the rest of my time to E-Democracy.Org, E-Democracy.Org is the host of the Minneapolis Issues Forum and 3 other local forums in Minnesota and 3 in England thanks to an exciting pilot project. In fact, you can download for free our 60 page how-to guidebook from e-democracy.org/if
Tomorrow everything changes.
I am heading to the Bay Area, the Google Campus specifically, where I will be inducted as an Ashoka Fellow. This three year social entrepreneurship fellowship will allow me to dedicate myself full-time to E-Democracy.Org.
So before I shift gears and move from holding the hand of government to giving it swift kick from time to time, let me share some of my honest lessons about attempts to foster public participation in Governance 2.0:
1. If the innovation disrupts power, it will not spread without a mandate. The best practices and democracy enhancing services must incorporated into the rule of law.
I’ve seen nothing that indicates that e-democracy techniques and tools adopted by the leading 5 percent of “progressive” governments will spread to others. Other than elections, the vast majority of the public will not have the right or ability to experience democracy in a meaningful way as our time and lives move more and more online. As a starting point, I want to amend open meeting laws to also require online notification of public meetings, electronic distribution of all handouts, and digital recordings of such meetings.
2. Timely access to legally public information is the most cost-effective and transformative e-democracy investment.
In this case, you don’t need to change laws, we simply need to adopt the technology that allows the public to receive personalized electronic notification of new information or events that interest them. Being told of a application for a liquor license in what was the coffee shop next door gives you the power to act while it still matters.
3. Central resources and policy development can prime the pump.
The $10 million Canadian Dollar UK Local E-Democracy National Project of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that I consulted for recently is a great example. We simply can’t expect one government to subsidize other governments. Central resources for pilots, development, promotion, and research are essential. If your country doesn’t have a well funded e-democracy initiative serving the national or local level, the current generation in power simply isn’t serious about securing a representative democracy that will thrive or even survive the information age. On an international basis I recommend large scale open source efforts that adapt, build and share tools for e-democracy. Technology costs must be brought down and any investment leveraged for the benefit of democracy around the world.
4. Representatives are asleep. Their uniform complaint to me around the world is e-mail management – sorting, understanding, responding to, and tracking electronic communication.
Overall, our parliaments and city councils have approved billions for technology investments for government administration but very little that will help them connect with and better represent citizens. Representatives are ceding technology power and therefore political and communication power to the executive. We citizens gain our greatest voice in governance through our elected representatives. They must invest in e-democracy. As a Canadian parliamentary staff member said to me once, we have shifted from wait and see to anticipate and prepare. But he made it clear the MPs themselves need to lead and to ask for innovations like e-consultation options or “online committee rooms” before they will be provided. As I say to my one year old son – wakey wakey.
5. Finally, a number of countries with in-person policy consultation requirements, like Canada and Australia, have had a number of interesting e-consultation experiments and initiatives. We must learn from them.
E-consultations must more directly engage decision-makers to have an impact. I know this is a central theme in IAP2’s core values. I recommend people check out activities in South Korea where the Seoul Metropolitan government reports back to the online forums they host on actions taken related to discussions. Also check out the State of Queensland Australia for their state of the art shared platform for e-consultation. See the case studies on my Democracies Online website – dowire.org. I have a blog and e-mail newsletter on these topics there as well.
Do I have hope for Governance 2.0, for government-led efforts to engage the public in information-age democracy? Sure.
Now, I’d didn’t say “Sure, Sure.” Which is Minnesotan for “absolutely, you better believe it.”
I’ve come to conclusion that as citizens we will only experience the democracy we demand.
Citizens 2.0 is about creating that demand.
It is also about countering what I guess we can call Politics 2.0, where partisan “politics as usual” has figured out the Internet enough to tear us apart.
If you hang out in national political blogospheres (weird term I know), this democratized punditry, while empowering advocates, feels more like a virtual civil war over the mass media than a place where people have a say and engage one another to solve public problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I support online advocacy and the new speakers corner that blogs represent. But with our governments and representatives ill equipped to “e-listen,” civil society needs to fill void and create places and experiences online that allow people to learn from one another, build respect, influence agendas and over time impact decision-making, and most importantly meet public challenges.
So here is where we are, an empowered political class and disabled outmoded governance.
It doesn’t look pretty.
Imagine that you are being asked to build democracy, local democracy from scratch – that we’ve never had it.
Would you put at the center the requirement that you need to be at a certain place and a certain time to be most effective? Or would you build an anywhere, any time democracy?
I understand the power of face-to-face communication. However, our local communities are desperate for complementary forms of effective participation that are inclusive of people at work, who have children in the home, those unable to attend because of a disability or lack of transportation.
This is what Issues Forums and other e-democracy models offer – any time, anywhere participatory democracy. I am not talking about direct democracy or voting on everything from your couch. I am talking about building out the platform for everyday citizen participation that actively draws people out into the community. The Internet as the ultimate ice breaker to reconnect local communities so we can build capacity and trust.
So to conclude, here is my Citizens 2.0 draft plan – I invite you join me in crafting it:
1. Spread Issues Forums to more communities.
You can bring local citizens together from the center and reach out across the political spectrum to build Issues Forums for your local community (think of how Rotary or Lions Clubs started 100 years ago). We can technologically create top-down “virtual ghost town” forums for every place in the world in minutes – what good is that? These forums, while part of a network, must be locally built. With my Ashoka Fellowship and help from our dedicated volunteers, we invite you to join our class of 2007 for new forums with training and assistance.
2. Deepen activities within our existing communities including neighborhood forums and “citizen media” (We Media) style community blogs that operate from a neutral point of view – you have to check out Northfield.Org for a great example.
We also need to connect participants across our network for knowledge exchange. Put simply, active citizens need to be able to ask questions of other participants on challenges they seek to address. The other month our forum in Newham, England discussed improving glass recycling. Minneapolis is very successful with recycling. Imagine the solution generating power of a network of 100 local forums with 30,000 total participants where people opt-in to receive questions and provide answers on the local community topics that interest them most.
3. Build the demand for e-democracy in government and also, this is very important, the media.
We can empower the local government webmaster by asking for online features like e-mail notification or simple e-mail newsletters. As a former government web manager, outside requests empowered me to get higher ups to become more responsive. I mentioned the rule of law – you’ve all heard of FOI or Freedom of Information – what about IDR or Information Dissemination Requirements. We must create a new moment, new “must do” concepts, to save democracy from the information age. Our local initiatives can help foster this demand in a few places, we need to link up with others to create real demand in the capitols around the world.
4. Finally, while I don’t have time to share my top five list of what individual citizens can do, at last count it had 14 items, here is one small thing you can do to move e-democracy forward – send a personal e-mail to one of your elected officials and let them know that you appreciate the fact that they are willing to engage you electronically.
Ask them to place you on their e-mail announcement list for important updates. Perhaps mention a couple of issues that you’d like to be kept informed on in particular. While many elected officials, will say what e-mail list?, most of the wired elected officials I meet have such a behind the scenes e-lists. They tell me that they have some of their most fruitful exchanges when citizens press reply in response to their newsletter with new information or views they had not considered. While not publicly accessible like an Issues Forum, this is just one small action everyone here can take to build the demand for e-democracy and make Citizens 2.0 a reality.
We started with Annie Young, a elected official who can confidently reach out to the public online for substantial input and ended with what we as citizens can do to build democracy in the information age. Ultimately, each generation has the opportunity to use the new tools before them to make things a little bit better. Let us seize that opportunity.