Published on July 27, 2009

The Online Agenda – deepening the level of engagement?

By Thea Shahrokh

Thea has worked for Involve since January 2009, she is on unpaid leave until the end of 2011. During this period she will be working as a Volunteering Advocacy Adviser with the VSO National Volunteering Programme and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport in Guyana. Thea will be posting a monthly blog on the Involve website to share her experiences, and what she has learnt about civic engagement and participation while in Guyana.

Government sentiment with regards to participatory processes has fluctuated in recent times – from the influential Communities in control: real people, real power White Paper, to the recent resignations from the very same government department that compiled it. Inevitably this has raised fears that the change at the top will mean a change in emphasis at best, and a retreat on the agenda at worst.

However, cross continentally there seem to be ongoing advances in the development of engagement in the form of online platforms for participation and deliberation. Its proponents are continuing to advocate the importance of e-participation for governments’ openness and outreach.

One key example is the Obama Administration’s innovative attempts at pressing Web 2.0 technology for the development of the Open Government Initiative. What has emerged from the Whitehouse is not the finished outcome, but a process. Three stages were developed to address the question of ‘how to make government more open?’ – a Brainstorm, a Discussion and a Draft. At each stage different third-party participatory tools were used to input information, with the last phase being the compilation of a final draft through a public Wiki called Mixed Ink. Of course this initiative is not without its critics, but it is still an exciting example for governments aspiring for to be innovative and inclusive, to take note of and to follow, thus making a step forward into the depths of real transparency and openness.

In the UK, one of the challenges that we face is government’s inability to participate in the online conversation even if it wanted to. There are a number of obstacles surrounding access to Web 2.0. Despite existing workable efforts such as the Cabinet Office digital engagement blog, changing the entire culture across government departments is an important step for opening up the system. In the UK, the government has not yet fully grasped the agenda. However, there is a core of social media professionals taking this agenda forward. Only last week Tim Davies, an Independent Consultant based in Oxford promoted his Charter for open and interactive government at a Re-Boot Britain event, which follows very similar ideas to that of the Obama initiative. The key premise of the Charter is to draft a statement which “local authorities, national government and voluntary agencies can sign up to as a commitment to change” with regards to taking practical steps to removing the barriers to open online government. The Charter is supported by ‘A toolkit for change’, which provides a map for overcoming the practical barriers to online engagement. This Charter has also been launched on Mixed Ink and invites government and non-governmental bodies to make a commitment to build openness and accountability into the roots of Whitehall. In the current climate it is hard to deny that this change is sorely needed.

But is this online agenda enough? We are encountering difficulties at all levels of society. Many face problems with regards to Internet access. Putting government online is one part of the solution. Can digital technologies transcend boundaries and eradicate exclusion from the equation? The difficulties are outlined in The CLG Delivering Digital Inclusion Action Plan, which attempts to understand the problems of delivery for the 17 million people in the UK who still do not have easy access to computers.

Involve has been pondering these questions. The development and interface of both online and offline engagement consistently emerges as an important component in the future of engagement. Those who have direct and access to the internet, the move online offers those who are interested more opportunity to engage in decision-making. The integration of online tools with offline citizen engagement may offer one way to ensure a greater breadth and depth of engagement. It is possible, if done well, that a blended strategy could help citizens arrive at a deeper level of understanding and consensus. Combining the broad reach of the Internet with the power of people listening and sharing perspectives has a much greater chance of achieving this. However, the practical side of this hybrid form of engagement needs to be further explored and developed, because it is equally possible that using online participation tools will widen the gap between those who already influence decision-making and those who do not.

How can this integration be done in an innovative and inclusive way? The quality of engagement needs to equal that of both online and offline efforts without the essence of the conversation being lost along the way. As John Gaventa of the Institute for Development Studies reminded us at a recent Involve seminar – “Democracy is not complete…and accountability is the watchword”, there will always be new developments and barriers to move beyond. Government needs to understand this as much as the rest of us – so let’s keep it on the agenda.

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