Sunday, December 06, 2009

Taking on Tim

Andrea DiMaio's posting on "Why Citizen Participation May be an Illusion" is stirring up interest in the O'Reilly e-government blogosphere.

There are great expectations about how governments will be able to leverage technology in the near future that will finally allow them to re-engage with citizens. We use different names for this: government 2.0, open government, e-democracy, e-participation. The basic assumption is that as citizen use technologies like social software to connect with each other and gather around issues and topics they care about, they’ll be able to make their voices heard more clearly and more timely by politicians and government officials.

When we look at barriers for this to happen, we usually focus on governments as the culprits. “They don’t get it”, we say, “They are risk-averse”, “They are afraid of innovation”, and so it goes.

But are we sure that citizen engagement would really work even if governments “got it” and went to great lengths to embrace social networks?

Let me share a little personal story that, although rooted in the somewhat peculiar and overcomplicated reality of my own country (Italy), may be exemplary of how the concept of engagement may remain for long more an abstraction than a reality.

Having recently been asked by an Italian journalist to comment about trends in digital rhetoric among political parties in Italy, after reviewing a list of URLs that she suggested, I think that DiMaio's arguments could apply in both contexts. After telling the story of DiMaio's own local government at the level of a city league and the right-wing coalition that handled organizational tasks, the argument shifted to e-government.

Now, what has this to do with government 2.0 and e-participation? I would argue that forums, blogs, virtual communities can go a long way to engage people in policy issues, pretty much like the city league did However, in order to turn all these voices and interest into something that politics and governments can seriously take into account there is a need – or, better, a requirement – for some legal status, some form of organization that, for its very nature, runs contrary to the spontaneity of self-organized communities.

It is all fair and good to say that politicians and government officials will carefully listen to what virtual communities say, but until when those communities can sit at a table and have a voting right, they won’t be able to make much difference. On the other hand, in order to do so they have to morph into something more formal, more physical, more “institutional”.

Contrary to Tim O'Reilly, DiMaio argues that "Government is Not a Platform." Since I'm interested in including platform studies in my own analysis of how governments function in relationship to technology, my thinking seems to occupy yet another possible position.

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