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Believable Change: A Reality Check on Online Participation

BY Jed Miller | Monday, October 26 2009

Reposted from "Increasing Citizen Engagement in Government," the Fall 2009 newsletter from the Center for Intergovernmental Solutions, an office of the General Services Administration.

To be effective, Internet professionals navigate between two dangerous currents: dismissal and utopianism. The challenges of dismissal are pretty obvious—the boss who forgets to invite you to the meeting, or the subtler demotion of online work to a pure marketing function.

The risks of utopianism are harder to see, but the danger is just as great: If we overstate how online tools can change the world, we ask our clients and colleagues to sail on faith into uncharted waters and we risk losing allies in the daily work that makes change a reality over time.

The Obama Administration arrived on a surge of optimism about online partnerships between citizens and government. As excitement transitions into a season of experimentation, Internet professionals, government professionals and regular people face important questions about the readiness of tools, institutions and individuals to turn optimism into operational change.

Beth Noveck, White House Deputy CTO for Open Government, is leading the effort to rethink public participation. She says the administration wants "to make government more relevant to people's lives" by providing more information, and to create "opportunities for people to share their expertise and participate in solving problems." Noveck believes that transparency and participation tools are most powerful when combined. "Data helps to focus people's attention," she says, "to develop actionable proposals based in empirical measures." Noveck and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have already coordinated web discussions on declassification policy, FCC rules, use of web cookies, Pentagon Web 2.0 guidelines and recommendations on the Open Government Initiative.

Despite the innovation—and fanfare—behind the White House pilots in transparency and public input, leaders in online collaboration temper their enthusiasm with questions.

On, co-founder Micah Sifry complained about the open government discussion that "the very topic we are being asked for input on isn't one that most people think about every day." In its busiest phase, that discussion drew about 1,000 suggestions and nearly 21,000 readers, according to the National Academy of Public Administration. For an online policy dialogue, that's a big success, but as a harbinger of a new era of digital citizenship it's a modest beginning at best.

The Obama campaign showed how digital tools can fuse the personal touch of local organizing with the powerful message of a national candidate and create a large, mobilized, virtual community, but online strategist Brian Reich is still looking for signs that Barack Obama the president can make the political personal as deftly as Obama the candidate made the personal political. "Obama did that extraordinarily well during the campaign because it was decentralized," says Reich, who is also a former staffer to Vice President Al Gore, "but the White House is the ultimate top-down communications vehicle." The traditional polarity of governance is not the only challenge to grassroots engagement by the White House.

The pace and the detail of federal policy-making are ill-suited to creating the momentum of a winning political campaign. "Getting 13 million people to agree to pull the lever on one day for one guy is very different than getting 13 million people to agree on what healthcare reform should be," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and an advisor on transparency to the Obama transition team.

One way to refine a clutter of online opinions into themes is to use tools that "let the community do the filtering," says David Stern, founder of MixedInk, one of the flagship systems OSTP is using to add structure and prioritization to its online policy forums. But Stern says the value of the process depends in part on the number of participants. "In order to have a wise crowd, you need a crowd," he says, "and the bigger the crowd, the wiser it is."

The buzzword "crowdsourcing" conjures an image of a vast group whose diverse views are refined by technology into a shared purpose. Thus far, however, OSTP has convened brain trusts, not crowds—modest-sized niche discussions among experts or interested non-experts.

Noveck acknowledges and seems to welcome this. The ambitions for Open Government may be sweeping, but Noveck says, "This is not about inviting everybody and anybody to participate in a conversation about transparency policy," or any single issue. "The goal is not to have millions of people. The goal is to create many, many opportunities for people to participate around the interests that engage them." Echoing Noveck, Reich says, "We need to stop looking at technology as a facilitator for giant things, and instead look at it as a facilitator for hundreds of millions of little things."

Even as government demonstrates a new commitment to civic engagement, and technology evolves to provide new tools, some leaders insist that permanent change, if it comes, must come offline and beyond the Beltway: in life as it's lived locally.

For author and speaker Rich Harwood, hope is the central theme in revitalizing community life and "public innovation," but he grows severe when asked how the White House can most effectively promote participation.

"I don't think we want a president dictating what engagement questions we're going to be wrestling with. If you think that's sufficient, we're in big trouble." Harwood is looking for the White House not only to reach out with national-level questions, but also to "catalyze the distributed capacity" of communities, organizations and individuals so they can grow "from consumers to citizens to active participants."

According to Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen, when relevant public information can reach interested people with sufficient structure, "government learns it has users." A longtime champion in the free software movement, Moglen says that if government provides usable data "without platformizing it or productizing it," then people will engage "not in some Platonic way, but at the fish market, in the schools, in the places where they want to take action."

Moglen is also an unrelenting realist about the potential of corporate structures to block progress. Traditional government software contractors, he says, "have never had to make a good program because they never made a program for anybody who had a choice of any kind about anything."

Speaking from inside the bureaucracy, Noveck is more moderate about the institutional challenges. She says resistance from federal employees, if it comes, comes not in dismissal but in "a lack of familiarity with the new tools and techniques for obtaining input," and "a concern whether it's doable to get meaningful, structured input" that is not "unmanageable" or "garbage."

Our culture of instant punditry can make it hard to see the difference between innovation and transformation. Real change happens not at the speed of a website launch or an election night, but at the organic, often maddening, pace of institutions and behaviors.

Moglen compares the emergence of new tools and personalizable data streams to the invention and mass production of the automobile. "It's okay to require a generation to learn how to drive," he says.

Furthermore, the change we've been waiting for may not be monolithic but, to quote organizers like Reich and Harwood, decentralized. Rasiej doesn't claim to know which tools will take participation to the next level, but he says the usable information on sites like will allow a hundred projects to emerge.

Noveck, herself a career evangelist of "little-d" democracy, is the first to rein in breathless claims about a new age. "I don't think we're there yet," she says from the hub of the new experiment. "It's too soon."

We should remember that it took 20 or 30 years for the Internet itself to evolve from a small government project into a ubiquitous platform that has permanently transformed public life.

The full CIS newsletter, including articles from Katie Stanton, White House Director of Citizen Participation, Jim Gilliam of and Carolyn Lukensmeyer of AmericaSpeaks, is downloadable (in PDF form) here.