What can we do to understand, foster and encourage people to engage with government decision and action?

I am currently sitting in a bar in Brooklyn doing my homework for a conference tomorrow. The conference is this one and it is called Making Engagement Work: the experiment and is being led by Beth Noveck, so I am very excited to be here. I am in a session led by Mark Headd and this is what we are chatting about and trying to be helpful:

To restore faith in government, we need to provide citizens with the clear channels to communicate their issues with those who have the power to address them.

But I am not (just) telling you where I am and why, I just wanted to explore a few thoughts now and then again after the event.

I have in my inbox a wealth of background material, but probably the most important one is to read this research by Pathways through Participation that is:

… a two-and-a-half year research project that aimed to improve our understanding of how and why people participate, how their involvement changes over time, and what pathways, if any, exist between different activities.

Interesting stuff, really good, go have a look. There is so much more to read and if you really want to then leave a comment and I will forward you an email with lots more.

My own thoughts are the following:

  • engage young people throughout school and show them how. The research shows that parental behaviour does affect how much young people growing up engage with their community and government, but current parental generations just don’t, usually. This seems so obvious, perhaps also obvious is that this is a very long game – however it is comforting to think that these kinds of discussions should be irrelevant in say 10-15 years when the new generations become parents, if they are afforded this opportunity. We know through Young Rewired State that young people understand what bugs them and are amazed and amazing when given a channel for their views and bug bears
  • make participation normal. It seems again obvious, but if it is a natural order when growing up to engage fully with communities and government, then the behaviour of non-engagement will be exception rather than the rule
  • create data communities to explore government data releases. It is recognised that the act of chucking data out to nations, citizens who have never been taught the skills in school to understand or interrogate the information locked in there is only useful to a very small group of experts. However, it is also recognised that this group of socially conscious “hacktivists” are very willing to help others, and apply their skills for the greater good. I personally can vouch for this as can all those in Code for America and so on and so forth. So my suggestion here is that, in a similar way to the UK e-petitions and the US We the people websites, we stop making the problem and challenges so large – how about a site similar to those petitioning ones but for citizens to explore data, they can highlight data released by governments, and ask for it to be explored. The developer community can then engage openly and look at what other individuals and groups are keen to understand further. However… the next bullet is important
  • watch the cost and manage expectations. Historically there have been many high-profile people hectoring governments to open data and that hundreds, nay thousands will engage for free to explain and explore that data. Similarly with teachers and digital skills: apparently there are hoards of people just gagging to do a lot of stuff in the name of community forever, for no payment. I would say this is a limited view – yes there are socially conscious people, but they all need to live and the data keeps on coming and the expectations of the public sector is set at: all these fabulous people do all this stuff for love, pizza and beer… we need to watch this

The money thing and how participation is paid for is important, and tricky, it is touched on in the original participation report: people will engage to a point, but at some point the receiving beneficiaries, in this case governments, do need to recognise and pay for the value they are getting in order to secure the value they need to do their jobs to change law and policy. There is a place for personal passion, but if the need is real and the engagement successful – the passionate initiator has to make an important decision about how or whether to continue. This is a conversation longer than a blog post but it needs to be aired and discussed.

I hope to do a bit of this over the next two days, with all of the above points, but if anyone has anything else to add, please do here or on the #govlab hashtag over the next two days.

Nice one

4 responses

  1. First job is to make sure everyone has a fit for purpose connection. Millions on long line lengths don’t. They can’t stream video, they can’t upload, they can’t engage. Once the technology works people will use it. It has to be interesting, and waiting for pages to load is not.

  2. I have recently participated in a couple of Open Data workshops/discussions run by my council. Which is great. But. One-off events by invitation to the hallowed halls of the Council palace are not going to achieve very much or spread the word very far. It is but lip service to Open-ness.

    I would like to see frequent, or even permanent, walk-in workshops held right in the community, preferably busy places like shopping centres. Imagine being able to simply walk into a ‘shop’ with your laptop and chat to someone from the council about their data, sit right down and hack away. Or, if not a techie, walk in and ask a local hacker to mine some info for you. Or leave a request on the noticeboard. Or offer your data-mining services. Or publicise your hack. A one-stop shop for all your Council data needs, plus of course it can be used for regular hackathon-style ‘missions’ and gatherings.

    Open Data needs to be more OPEN. No point publishing it hidden deep in the labyrinthine Council website or behind some proprietary API that only businesses can afford to use.

  3. Pingback: Connected Learning: the research and thought-provoking outputs | Emma Mulqueeny

  4. > I hope to do a bit of this over the next two days, with all of the above points

    Many people are fascinated by this area. In the Cabinet Office, for example, they have people whose full time is to think about this kind of thing.

    How do we bring all these great intentions together?

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