I co-wrote this piece with David Wilcox recently for publication in a forthcoming book by Involve, an organisation dedicated to exploring new forms of public participation. I am on the board of Involve and David is a key member of its network. Involve has a new web site coming soon – watch this space!
Some Lessons from Web 2.0 for Participation and E-democracy
By Lee Bryant and David WilcoxThe participation sector has spawned a large amount of research, methodology, and consulting services, but remarkably little new thinking about how to get better results from consultation and participation exercises. In the late 90’s, the Internet and related technologies were seen as a potential solution to these problems, but the majority of early e-government and e-democracy initiatives have been little more than old thinking disseminated using new media. However, the outlines of a new approach are beginning to take shape that draws on recent thinking in online social networks and the emerging culture of the World Wide Web to offer some lessons for the future
Most research into why participation is not generating the hoped-for results and levels of engagement points to three key groups of issues
- Conventional ‘top-down’ approaches to participation do not overcome the feeling of powerlessness that many participants experience, nor the political, economic, cultural and technical barriers to participation.
- People are much more likely to get involved if they think something tangible and worthwhile will come out of it, which is why it is better to support independent organisations run by people themselves.
- Capacity building to support empowerment and participation is lacking, especially among excluded groups – but this does not mean turning people into professional service users.
At the heart of these issues is the question of power and where it lies. Regardless of the quality of techniques employed or facilitation provided, if a participation exercise consists of a powerful body (e.g. a government department) inviting limited submissions on pre-determined questions from the disempowered, then the power imbalance built into the consultation will cast doubt on the results. Power is derived most obviously from being able to choose and frame the questions and the type of language used; but it is also important to consider who is asking the questions, when and how they are asked, and of course who can answer
Why does this situation continue? Firstly, institutional inertia and vested interests among consultation or participation professionals sometimes result in us clinging to old models for as long as they are funded, regardless of their success. This applies across the board, from client staff and external consultants to the cadre of semi-professional ‘service users’ who take part in these projects. Second, perhaps there is a genuine shortage of ideas about how to genuinely engage people in decision-making and the workings of power. Even where organisations try to speak the language of bottom-up process, they do so in a top-down way because that is all they know
It is sometimes argued on the basis of existing evidence, that most people do not want to be engaged or to participate, but there is also evidence to suggest that we all have issues or problems that we regard as important enough to provide motivation for getting involved in finding a solution. Indeed, it may be that some of the problems we face in the Twenty-first century, such as the increasing demands placed on the National Health Service and environmental protection, are practically insoluble without some form of shared solution between the government, civil society and individual citizens
Current e-democracy models are largely based on traditional thinking. Government has spent £4 million on pilots, but this work is mostly top down. There are two pilot community forums, and Bristol council is developing a community campaigning pack, but on the whole the impact on the cultural and organisational problems of participation is minimal. In common with the majority of e-government projects, this work is based on the idea that government can construct an online ‘place’ that reflects its own view of the issues, and then invite ‘communities’ to visit and ‘join in the debate’. However, the real debate and the real action are elsewhere – within people’s own networks
Yet, at the same time, if you look at what is happening in the commercial world, marketing specialists and some big corporations now recognise that that the best way to improve their products is to develop and maintain continuing conversations with their customers in an attempt to genuinely involve them in customer support, product design and future direction. They are monitoring weblogs, engaging with criticism and generally trying to keep up in a highly competitive (and fickle) world where customers have shown time and time again that they will not tolerate inferior service – or worse – old-fashioned PR and spin
Technology is also bringing change in civil society. People are starting to use their digital cameras to show up failures in public services. The National Computing Centre is supporting groups who want to make campaign videos. The BBC offers a campaigning platform online. Community groups in Teesside are showing how to mix new digital media with older methods of engagement, and citizens are organising online for change, in London, and elsewhere. There is lots of participation and involvement going on, it’s just that most of it is DIY activity taking place a long way away from the calcified environment of formal participation and consultation projects. This is where any new approach must begin
So what lessons can we learn from these new, alternative approaches, and what role, if any, can online technologies play in participation
Perhaps the most surprising thing to say about current developments in the online world is that their greatest contribution is probably cultural rather than technical. There has been a significant increase in online participation and involvement over the past couple of years, which has marked what some people have called the transition from Web 1.0 (publishing ‘pages’ within a broadcast model) to a new phase dubbed Web 2.0 (the network as platform, remix culture and network effects). Interestingly, this has not been driven by sophisticated new technology, software or hardware, but rather it is the result of a critical mass of connected individuals doing some technically very simple things together. For example, Weblogs are technically little different to the personal homepages that proliferated in the early days of the ‘net, but the difference is they are now at the centre of millions of connected conversations that are taking place between individuals without mediation by mainstream media, traditional organisations or IT departments
Whereas leading Web sites used to focus o
n pushing information to individuals (one-to-many), proponents of Web 2.0 are building what they call an “architecture of participation” to support many-to-many interaction. In the jargon, it is about creating social affordances based on network effects – i.e. new things are possible with a critical mass of connected people and content that we could not do before. Crucially, this process has a human voice – it places great importance on the value of conversation rather than just information sharing
The best-known example of this phenomenon is Google. The power of its search engine is derived from millions of people linking their web sites to one another, which creates a sufficiently large and dynamic dataset for Google’s Pagerank algorithm to determine the most useful Web links for a given search, based on previous users’ behaviour. Amazon, the online bookseller, and eBay, the online auction, also both utilise network effects to drive their recommendation and reputation systems. In each case, users are doing something very small and simple that, when aggregated at scale, enables new and powerful applications based on popular participation
There are several key cultural aspects of Web 2.0 thinking that have been key to its growth so far, and that may be useful reference points for a new approach to thinking about participation
Open source, open services and the remix culture:Open source ideas began in the gift economy of academia and later influenced software developers and Internet pioneers. The idea is simple: that allowing people to participate in the development of tools or services that are important to them, we can together create public value that more restrictive models of exchange do not. This idea is key to encouraging people to get involved with projects of various kinds, because they can benefit from the shared value that results. Demos published a useful report in 2005 entitled Wide Open, which suggested how this approach could be applied in knowledge sharing, team working, and conversations, and contained some useful pointers for using these ideas in a practical setting
Aggregation and Syndication:Modern Web-based systems see information and content are services, not products, and allow end users to choose what and how to aggregate in order to support their own worldview or needs. This works both ways. Just as people should be able to aggregate the information they need, so organisations that want to know their views should attempt to aggregate those views where they have already been expressed, rather than hope that people will take the trouble to tell their story or share their views all over again
Co-production:Ideas such as commons-based peer production are giving a new lease of life to older concepts of public good and public value, with projects such as Wikipedia achieving levels of meaningful participation that e-democracy practitioners can only dream about. The ‘wiki way’ is for people to collaborate to build up ideas, plans, documents and resources that they can all share. This is an important form of participation that traditional approaches rarely accomplish
User-driven language:This cuts to the heart of the language problem in participation projects; instead of using a fixed set of terms or categories and expecting people to understand and engage with them, many Web 2.0 applications use methods such as social tagging to facilitate a fluid process of language and meaning negotiation between users. Aggregating user-driven terms provides a much more accurate picture of their views and priorities than surveys that ask how many agree with proposition X or label Y .
Intelligence at the edges:These new developments are all about building capacity within the network and devolving intelligence to the edges and away from the centre. Capacity building should be about network development and strengthening, rather than just individual interactions with service users. Even if organisations adopt open participation tools and methods, the absence of network development will mean they never get off the ground
Personal ownership, agency and voice:Rather than expect people to visit somebody else’s online space to share their views or debate issues, more and more people will share their own views through a personal space, weblog or wiki with the expectation that these can be cross-posted or syndicated to other places that would like to share them. People should own their own contributions and express them in their own voice – it should be up to the consulting organisation to do the leg-work to aggregate these contributions by going to the people, rather than vice versa
What all these themes have in common is the question of power: in a networked world, power lies with the network nodes, not the centre. If we are to move beyond the traditional broadcast or portal model of e-government, or the staid forum-based approach of early e-democracy, then we must actively seek to increase the power and the capacity of the network for participation to succeed
There are some obvious first steps, such as more networky organisations, storytelling instead of surveys, more ground-up e-democracy creating civic spaces, and events with conversations instead of presentations. But the impressive levels of participation that we are witnessing on the Web’s new frontier will only be achieved in conventional participation projects if we delve more deeply into network thinking to address the power problem that lies at the heart of traditional participation methods
If we are to go beyond mere consultation, where people are invited to give their views on a limited set of issues that are fed back into a process that remains largely opaque and inaccessible, then we should perhaps look to network thinking for some lessons on how to do this in the real world. The ‘architecture of participation’ being developed under the banner Web 2.0 provides a good starting point, and ideas such as network-based co-production, open source thinking and user-driven language are already being used in a variety of fields to engage people better than before. But this will only work if accompanied by a corresponding cultural shift, which involves letting go and sharing power within a network context, rather than clinging to the belief that government, charities or companies have all the answers and their customers are simply a resource to be managed.