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New Pew Report on "Govt Online" Shows Big Citizen Participation But Little Govt Engagement

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 27 2010

"The more we can enlist the American people to pay attention and be involved, that's the only way we are going move an agenda forward. That's how we are going to counteract the special interests." --Barack Obama, speaking to a campaign audience in Indianapolis, April 30, 2008

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has just released a meaty new study called “Government Online,” looking at how Americans access public information and interact with government using the internet. The report is chock full of interesting data about Americans usage of government websites, and much of what it details isn’t that surprising: nearly half of all online adults went to government sites to look up information in the past year. But while their interests are often focused on mundane and personal matters (the websites of the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service are by far the most heavily used), a rising fraction of online Americans are doing more than simply accessing information or completing tasks like filling out a form or paying a fine.

The Pew report calls this growing group of active citizens the “government participatory class,” and it estimates its overall size at one-quarter of all adult Internet users. But for the most part, these people aren’t interacting directly with government agencies or officials through their official websites or social network presences; they’re talking about them and around them, using the broader internet. What this means, I think, is that the notion of government-as-a-platform, where we—citizens and public officials alike—use the web to make the boundary between the public and the government more porous and our interactions more collaborative and participatory, simply hasn’t gotten very far. Yet.

Here’s how Pew explains the data from its survey about the government participatory class:

…individuals who follow government officials or agencies on social media platforms are at this time mostly engaged in information-seeking as opposed to interaction with the agencies they follow. For example, 11% of those who read the blog of a government agency or of- ficial have posted their own comments on that blog for others to read. Since 13% of internet users read government blogs, that works out to only 2% of all internet users who have commented on the blog of a government official or agency.

Posting comments is somewhat more common among those who follow government agencies or officials on an online social network: 20% of those who follow an agency or official on such a site have posted comments on the agency’s fan page or profile. However, because a relatively small number of people follow government agencies or officials on social networking sites, that works out to just 1% of all internet users who have done this. We also asked about government interaction using Twitter, but the number of Twitter users who follow a government agency or official is too small to report these findings.

These results should not imply that Americans are not involved in online discussions around government issues or policies—these conversations are simply taking place within the broader online environment rather than on “official” government blogs or fan pages. In the twelve months preceding this survey, one in ten internet users (11%) posted comments, queries or other information related to government poli- cies online, while 7% of internet users uploaded videos or photos online related to a government policy or issue. An additional 12% of internet users joined a group online that tries to influence government policies, and 3% participated in an online town hall meeting. Taking all of these activities together, nearly one quarter of internet users (23%) have posted comments or interacted with others online around government policies or public issues.

[Emphasis added.]

Still Stuck in E-Govt Mode
How should we interpret this finding? I think what it shows is that government use of technology is still mired mostly in a “e-government” paradigm, rather than “we-government” or “we.gov.” While the Obama Administration may have started blazing a new path with the president’s Day One executive memorandum calling on government to be more transparent, participatory and collaborative, and a wave of experimentation with social media by government officials has ensued, most Americans aren’t plugging into government online. In my humble opinion, the fault is not with citizens, but with the government agencies and officials at the hub of all this information.

To give one salient example: the Pew report finds that 16% of online Americans have visited new open government sites like data.gov, recovery.gov or usaspending.gov. But a visit could be much more than a one-way interaction; alas, there’s little sign of that happening. Back when President Obama was unveiling his stimulus spending program, he touted Recovery.gov as a key platform for ensuring that the hundreds of billions of new money would be well-spent:

We’re actually going to set up something called Recovery.gov—this is going to be a special website we set up, that gives you a report on where the money is going in your community, how it’s being spent, how many jobs it’s being created so that all of you can be the eyes and ears. And if you see that a project is not working the way it’s supposed to, you’ll be able to get on that website and say, “You know, I thought this was supposed to be going to school construction but I haven’t noticed any changes being made.” And that will help us track how this money is being spent.... The key is that we’re going to have strong oversight and strong transparency to make sure this money isn’t being wasted.

[Emphasis added.]

Earl Devaney, the former Secret Service agent who was appointed as the Inspector General to run the stimulus program’s Recovery and Transparency Accountability board, promised that the site would invite Americans to be “citizens inspectors general” helping track whether the money was indeed being used properly. “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors-general],” Devaney told the Financial Times last August. “After getting a taste of this, people will not want to go back to the old ways,” he said.

No such thing has happened, alas. First of all, the Recovery.gov site doesn’t really engage the public as “eyes and ears” apart from offering a way for people to report fraud, waste or abuse via an electronic complaint form. In other words, all the real information processing about possible problems with government spending is hidden from the public; people have no way of seeing each others complaints or tracking whether something has been addressed.

Over on Devaney’s “Chairman’s Corner” blog, a handful of posts (less than one per month!) demonstrate further how out-of-touch the IG is with how to engage the social web. A month ago, he lambasted “gratuitous criticism from some journalists and Internet grouches” who have pointed out problems with Recovery.gov’s public data, instead of embracing their comments as constructive. My friend and colleague Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs, noted how badly Devaney dealt with online criticism:

You could have created a spirit of civil openness and participation like no other in an incredibly charged political environment. You could have been a textbook model for every federal agency as they are writing their open government plans….But instead you decided to go on the defensive. You decided to belittle the participants, and to further the controversy. You decided to keep up the data hysteria and draw a wall around yourself.

Unfortunately, a flagship site like Recovery.gov sets a tone for the rest of the Obama administration's efforts to genuinely engage the public in new ways online. The data in Pew's new report ought to be a wake-up call to folks inside the administration: there's a big gap, still, between the beauty of your rhetoric and the reality of how the government is (and isn't) using the web to become more open, participatory and collaborative. A big portion of the American public--the "government participatory class" in Pew's words--is engaged in talking about you online, but they're not engaged with you. If you don't figure out how to transform that dynamic, they could turn against you.