Digital technology can bring democracy to life
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Mon May 16 2011. Don Tapscott and Bill Gillies
On Monday at the MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto, Research and Innovation Minister Glen Murray unveiled an important example of how digital technologies can bring to life the fuzzy “participatory democracy” notion championed decades ago by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Murray made the announcement at the province’s first Social Innovation Summit, which brought together 150 local and international leaders from business, not-for-profits, academia and community groups to brainstorm the best ways to tackle economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges.
The invitation-only conference lasted one day, but Murray announced that the discussion would then move to the Internet. But rather than having the typical online discussion, the Ontario government is taking a bold new step — actually asking the general public to use a wiki to collaboratively create a framework for social innovation. (The well-known Wikipedia is a form of wiki, where anyone can make suggestions or changes.) It will be up to our elected officials to evaluate the public document and turn it into official government policy.
Trudeau would be impressed. Despite his claims, Trudeau’s government was definitely not participatory. It was broadcast. He and other politicians broadcast to us for four years through advertisements and TV sound bites. Then we voted. Previous and subsequent governments all did the same.
This “we vote, they rule” structure dates back to the last spike. The system functioned because public policy issues were simple and evolved slowly. The public didn’t have the education, time, resources or communication tools to participate more fully.
This is no longer the case. The policy specialists and advisers on the government payroll can barely keep pace with defining the problems, let alone craft the solutions. Governments need more than our votes — they need our knowledge and our efforts. Governments must create opportunities for sustained dialogue between voters and public officials.
To be clear, this is not some kind of direct democracy, where citizens would vote online every night after the evening news. That would be tantamount to a digital mob.
Nor is this just a means to determine voter sentiment. Opinion polls already do a good job at that.
Instead, we need ways to allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process — to get them engaged in public life. When citizens become active, good things can happen. We all learn from each other. Initiatives get catalyzed. People become active.
It is for these reasons governments around the world are scrambling to exploit the Internet’s capabilities and encourage citizen involvement. Governments of all levels realize that they cannot act alone to solve the challenges facing our societies. It’s now more effective to make full use of digital technologies to develop a platform that enables the public sector, private and not-for-profit sectors to collaborate.
One of the more comprehensive visions of a digital and collaborative government in Canada was outlined earlier this year in British Columbia by Liberal leadership contender Christy Clark. She became leader of her party and premier of the province by campaigning aggressively on the promise of a more open, responsive and accountable digital government.
She promised an Open Government Online project to “harness the use of social networks and online tools to engage citizens, improve government’s responsiveness and accountability, cut bureaucracy and improve government productivity.”
She also promised to create a Citizen Engagement Challenge. Government ministries will identify the key challenges they are facing and provide a forum for British Columbians to work collaboratively with government to improve policy and service delivery. During the budgeting process, citizens could go online to identify policies they see as priorities or wasteful. To eliminate unnecessary red tape, the public will nominate regulations that should be downsized or eliminated.
Other governments at all levels, including the new Harper government, could learn from these initiatives. This is a time of great peril and great promise for government. Around the world governments are reeling under the strains of the financial meltdown and global economic crisis. Plummeting tax revenues, bank bailouts and infrastructure investments made to keep national economies from the brink of collapse have drained government coffers, in turn causing a crisis in funding basic operations. And in many parts of the world democracy itself is stalled, with low voter turnouts and cynical public attitudes toward government.
Just as new waves of innovation have washed over the private sector, the imperative to harness new models of collaboration and innovation is arriving at the doorstep of governments everywhere.
Don Tapscott’s most recent book is Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World.www.twitter/com/dtapscott.
Bill Gillies is a Toronto-based communications consultant. Bill@Gillies.com.
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