Transparency and Open Government

27 04 2010

Another trend in public participation to watch is initiatives to improve transparency in government. Administrations at all levels of government (federal and local) have indicated a commitment to open processes and access to information. This is necessary to combat the extremely low levels of public trust in government as well as the increased accessibility to information via new media.

Leadership that endorses transparency establishes a tone that public involvement has a significant role to play in today’s government. However, public skepticism abounds when it appears that decisions are made behind closed doors with political influences and interests taking precedent over the ways in which a decision might impact people or improve their lives.

Policies on paper won’t necessarily be fully implemented overnight, but I suggest the following commitments as a starting point:

  • Be transparent about the decision-making process, including who, when and how a decision will be made
  • Be transparent about what points in the decision-making process public input can influence the outcome
  • Be transparent by providing access to information about various points of view and implications of the decision-making options
  • Be transparent by providing information relevant to citizens using plain English and explaining the potential impacts of a decision on various stakeholder groups

There is still much to do in terms of building trust and credibility among elected officials and government agencies. Transparency is key to winning back the public’s confidence. What commitments or practical steps would you expect from administrations promising transparency in government?


New Media: Emerging Tools for the Practice

20 04 2010

I was recently posed the question, What is the most important trend/issue related to public involvement? In terms of tools and techniques, I believe new media including the internet and social media provide significant new opportunities for providing information and methods for public participation.

For people who are on the web on a daily basis, this is not new news. Web sites allow 24/7 access to summaries and documents; citizens can choose to learn about topics to a level of depth that meets their information needs and interests. Interactive media provides the possibility of dialogue on a given topic that doesn’t have to occur in a single geographic location or timeframe. There is opportunity for real-time response as well as time-shifted response (meaning, people can participate in the same thread over the course of time rather than having a specified hour and then it is done).

Although these tools have great promise for facilitating public input, there are also drawbacks: one is related to access to technology and the ability to use it; another is the need to distinguish what is trustworthy and credible information. These two issues will be ongoing challenges to implementing new media techniques in public involvement. Although the use of new media seems obvious to people already familiar with it, there is another segment of the population who are not connected to these media outlets and are completely left out of the virtual conversation.

That said, new media should always be accompanied by other tools and techniques for participation such as in-person public meetings, small group forums, published materials placed in public locations, and telephone and letter correspondence.

What examples have you seen effectively use new media for public involvement? Please share your stories and links by posting a comment!

Prime example: Discussing Global Climate Change

13 04 2010

It is difficult to engage people in thinking about big issues with long-term consequences. Such topics are often abstract, futuristic and extremely technical. Global warming and climate change are topics that could be called “wicked problems”.

Regardless of your personal stance on the issue (belief, unbelief or otherwise…) I was impressed with a recent interview on the Diane Rehm Show with Dr. Margeret Leinen, Founder and CEO of The Climate Response Fund. She is in the nitty-gritty of technical research on climate change and discussed a conference held last month that brought together various interested parties to establish guidelines for climate research.

Leinen explained, “We have been concerned for some time that there were lots of venues where scientists could talk amongst themselves about the science but there weren’t any venues and there weren’t any discussions emerging where the people concerned about risk management, governance, ethics, economics, international law, [or] public opinion could come together with the scientists to talk about that. So we sponsored a week-long conference modeled on a very famous early conference in the ‘70s that looked at recombinant DNA … The thing that it had in common was that the scientists voluntarily came together and said, We’re very concerned about this research; help us understand what kinds of guidelines are necessary.”

This explanation caught my attention as a significant move to bring together various stakeholders to discuss processes surrounding climate research. Agreement on process is critical to credibility and acceptance of research results. Furthermore, research on climate change is dealing with ethical and legal questions since the environment does not belong to one entity, but has implications for all.

What are the pros and cons of utilizing a conference format to address global (literally and figuratively) problems? What other strategies to take on “wicked problems” have you seen?

Perspectives: Diana Mutz

6 04 2010

I recently came across this video interview with Diana Mutz. She is a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

This brief interview segment raises some good questions and insights for P2 practitioners. I like that she acknowledges American citizens are “over-burdened” with participation; we simply cannot expect everyone to participate in everything! She also points out that people like to be with like-minded people – both in-person and on-line. So the challenge then becomes one of representative participation more than numbers. How do you tap into people’s inclination to discuss issues with people who hold similar views and achieve a robust discussion with multiple points of view?

Mutz points out that this inadvertently happens in “non-political” forums based on common interests when there is another topic uniting the group such as a sport, hobby, event or other activity. People don’t typically gather to discuss race, gender, class and other big issues; but these kinds of topics are raised in the course of conversation while watching a football game or meeting with a local club.

Mutz also sees opportunities for deliberative democracy on the internet; I would be interested to hear more specifics and more recent views given the evolution of social media.

Watch the video and let me know what you think … what insights speak to you as a P2 practitioner? What questions do you find engaging and relevant? Please comment with your reactions!