Seen and Heard: Amanda Clarke, Digital Government and Citizen Engagement

Max Greenwald

When it comes to government-citizen engagement, democracy can be a narrowing framework. Especially in the digital age, governments must move away from viewing citizen engagement as a democratic process and instead view it as a means to expand opportunities for effective governance. Speaking at the School of Public Policy and Governance on February 4, Amanda Clarke—a PhD candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, instructor at Carleton University, and a Trudeau Scholar—argued that we need to re-conceptualize citizen engagement for the digital age while heeding the lessons learned from earlier models of engagement.

As argued by Clarke, there are two fundamental ways of conceptualizing government-citizen engagement: as democratic empowerment and as a tool of effective governance. Under the democratic empowerment model, Arstein’s ladder of citizen participation still dominates the discussion and options for engagement. Arstein’s seminal work argued that government engagement should empower citizens as democratic actors, that democratic power is synonymous with policy influence, and that engagement is meaningless if the public is not granted influence over policy. We see Arnstein’s influence in how governments conduct consultations, royal commissions, task forces, public opinion research, deliberative dialogues, and town halls—mechanisms of democratic empowerment to inform the decision-making process.

Conversely, when government-citizen engagement is conceptualized as a tool of effective governance the government mindset is to tap into the resources of citizens as opposed to how citizens can inject their opinions and preferences into government. Where proponents of engagement as democratic involvement seek to empower the public to shape public policy, proponents of engagement as a means to increase effectiveness of governance seek to leverage the public to solve public problems.

Clarke applies the metaphor of nodality to illustrate the mechanisms government-citizen engagement. Nodality, a term borrowed from social network studies, analyzes the property of being central in social and informational networks. Effecting nodality is akin to pushing information outside government to generate an outcome (e.g., a tweet to remind you of school registration or a letter informing you of street resurfacing). Detecting nodality is akin to pulling information into government to generate an outcome (e.g., surveys, roundtables, deliberative dialogues). Governments push out and pull in information to involve the public in the design and delivery of policies and services. Because governments already operate on networks, the internet (the biggest network) should explode the bounds of this phenomenon.

Yet, as stated by Clarke, the first wave of digital government-citizen engagement was preoccupied with democratic empowerment and used the internet incorrectly. It only narrowly explored digital detecting mechanisms, ignoring digital tools that are on the lower rungs of Arnstein’s participation ladder—things like online comment boxes, surveys and polls were discarded as being meaningless under the lens of democratic empowerment because they do not support rich two way interactions. It also ignored digital mechanisms of effecting citizen engagement—like listservs and social marketing. The primary focus on democratic involvement created a narrow conception of detecting mechanisms and tools of engagement; the digital framework was merely applied to the forms of democratic involvement method of government-citizen engagement (e.g, digital-townhalls and digital-consultation).

The internet as a platform allows for innovative forms of organization and collaboration and new models of firm-client relations. This has obvious implications for government-citizen engagement, which is all about solving problems through the input of the public. Thankfully, we are now seeing governments use digital citizen engagement as a means of improving the effectiveness of government. When the public sector places itself in the mindset of using the internet as a tool of effective governance, it can tap into the public to improve policy and services. Clarke calls this the second wave of digital government-citizen engagement. It includes more creative exploration of digital detecting tools of engagement (e.g., Fix My Street, TDOT 311), government embedding itself in online communities, and crowdsourcing aspects service delivery (e.g., PeerToPatent, Air Quality Egg). The second wave also explores digital effecting tools: networked information sharing via social media and non-government sites, open data (creating armchair public sector auditors and citizen sourced apps), and opportunities for personal data playback allowing governments to nudge users’ behaviour (e.g., collecting data on an individual’s travel patterns using the Oyster Card (or in the future the Presto Card) to suggest more efficient pricing options and travel patterns for transit users).

These aren’t merely ways of digitizing effecting and detecting mechanisms in the Arnstein tradition, but reimagining how government can work with the public to better the social good.

However, as cautioned by Clarke, advocates of digital government-citizen engagement must heed the lessons learned form earlier models of citizen engagement. There can be substantial gaps of policy knowledge within the public sector if people outside government start taking on public sector responsibilities. Conversely, non-government actors can have capacity deficits—the public often does not have the expertise or the time to effectively engage in solving public problems. And of course there are accountability and privacy concerns.

As per Clarke, we cannot take the need to evaluate effectiveness of digital government-citizen engagement out of the equation and only focus on democratic involvement. Governments are starting to get it right and are leveraging the public as a resource to create more effective policies and services. Yet effective and widespread digital government-citizen engagement is in its infancy and there are many opportunities to go astray.

Max Greenwald is a co-Editor in Chief of the Public Policy and Governance Review. He is also a 2013 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and holds a BA (Hons.) in Political Science from the University of Guelph.

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