At the Great Blend Event in Wellington, Russell and I were chatting about the work we're doing here at the State Services Commission around helping government agencies understand how to begin using the web to bring more people into improving how government works. He thought it would be fun for me to try and explain what we're doing so that you all might get a chance to tell us what you think. Brickbats and bouquets are definitely welcome. So here goes:
SSC's project is to create what we're calling a "State Services Framework for Online Participation" (and yes, we definitely need a new name for this thing. We were thinking of "State Services Guide to Online Participation", but if anyone has any better ideas, it'd be great to hear them). The driving idea behind what we're doing is pretty basic: if you think that people who are affected by public policy and public services are in a good position to help improve them - then working on using new ways of hearing them is really important. The web is obviously the biggest new way of hearing people to come along in years. This Framework or Guide to Online Participation is about helping government agencies make the best use of the web's great potential in this area.
What we're not talking about here is online direct democracy. Even if Kiwis go crazy for online participation, it is still up to New Zealand's elected representatives to make the final decision on matters of public policy. What good participation processes can do is be one more way to create a good information base for those decisions -- tapping the "wisdom of the crowd", so to speak, to create better government.
So what kind of a change are we talking about? One of the real limitations of traditional public participation is that it tends to keep members of the public isolated from one another when contributing to policy consultations, select committees or council meetings. They use a 'submission' model of consultation where typically, only the committee or official on the receiving end has an overview when they put everything together and funnel ideas into legislation or policy.
The web, and especially the new generation of Web 2.0 technologies, could blow this model to smithereens. Once online tools allow people to discover, interact with, and aggregate the ideas of others, it's no longer just agencies or committees that are empowered to sort out the best ideas put up for consideration. For instance, you can imagine people ' Digging' contributions others make, giving decision-makers a sense of what the 'crowd' thinks is a priority. You can imagine people cross linking contributions to other related content, creating more knowledge and opportunities to make use of new and interesting perspectives. You can imagine encouraging people to tag their contributions to help organize them, but also to give a snapshot of what's important to the people contributing in a simple, compelling way. There's so much to do here it makes my head spin.
This is not to say there isn't a lot we need to be really, really cautious about. Flaming, trolls and generally nasty and unhelpful behaviour is an obvious worry in any online environment, let alone an official, government one. Manipulation of online processes or hijacking by special interests is definitely another. We're going to need to consider ways of dealing with these sorts of issues to make online participation work well for everybody.
In our project we're working with keenly interested minds from academia, government agencies, business and not-for-profit groups. In December we had an amazing meeting of these people, and are firing up a wiki in the next few weeks to get everyone in what we're calling our "Participation Community of Practice" to start drafting as a collaborative effort. Membership is still open for this Community, by the way, so if you're interested in joining us, drop us a line.
In addition, a great experience for us has been talking to 'regular' New Zealanders about what they make of this whole idea of participation, what makes it work for them, and whether or not we can really make participation in government happen online.
It was remarkable how straight they were with us, basically saying:
"Don't mess with us on this. We're busy people. If you want us to participate, make it interesting, educational and fun. If we contribute, make sure our efforts don't disappear off into a black hole. Figure out ways to let us know where we stand relative to what other people think, and relative to the final decision. Most of all, ask us meaningful questions, so that we're set up to be successful contributors and you can actually use what we give you."
We think the Framework or Guide to Online Participation could include some core principles such as accessibility, plus some associated standards to adopt when establishing online participation. We're also thinking of providing some toolkits, a resource library, and ideas about how to evaluate these projects. (BTW -- evaluation is one of those areas we're really thinking hard about. We can't be investing in this unless it proves valuable, and it's hard to learn whether it makes any difference if we aren't measuring our progress. So what is success? How do we measure it? If someone has an instant answer, please call.)
If you're keen to join us, we're keen to hear from you. If you'd like to learn more, here's our website. Contact details are the bottom of that page.
Can't wait to hear what you think of all this. Meet you in the comments.
NB: There are already good things going on in NZ and internationally in this area. So here's a bunch of links worth checking out:
Steven Clift --one of the world's pioneers in online democracy.
My Society -- creators of www.theyworkforyou.com, www.pledgebank.com, www.hearfromyourMP.com, and the Number 10 Downing Street petition system.
International Centre of Excellence in Local E-Democracy -- a UK government-funded organisation which is the result of years of e-democracy pilot projects.
Ideal Government -- blog by independent researchers on technology and government in the UK. They're always asking WIBBI--wouldn't it be better if...?
Personal Democracy Forum -- a US organisation tracking how technology is changing politics.
Democracy Data Bank --a rich online resource run by Finland's Ministry of Justice.
And right here at home, have a look at:
The Couch -- an online panel created by the New Zealand Family's Commission
Taiohi --designed for Māori youth, this site offers information for high school students and uses online forums and polls.
David Hume has worked at the State Services Commission for about a year, working primarily on issues related to online participation. Originally from Canada, he followed his partner here after she landed a secondment to a New Zealand government agency. When he's not thinking about online participation or road trips, he's thinking about his wedding in September back in Canada.