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Evolving Digital Engagement

This June 2012 paper by Dr. Andy Williamson was published by Future Digital. The report, Evolving Digital Engagement: From Participation to Partnership,  reviews the background and context for digital engagement, with a focus on the shifting social and media landscape and the potential for more radical forms of policy development.

After a brief introduction, Williamson writes:

“… Despite an internet-driven social and information revolution, our democratic systems have remained entrenched in the traditional agendas of an increasingly alien party-political and ideologically polarised past. Models of democratic engagement traditionally positioned government as the driver and citizens as recipients, unable (and unqualified) to participate in the design of such systems. Yet the use of the internet by citizens and civil society groups demonstrates time and again that this model is no longer effective, appropriate or acceptable. The internet broadens the opportunities for democratic engagement beyond the old-world fortresses of power to encompass increased diversity, wider participation and more deliberative and participatory tools. Where traditional democracy is monolithic, imposed and carefully managed, digital democracy is temporal, emergent and viral.

This should not be taken to mean that technology will overturn the democratic deficit, it won’t. There is no ‘silver bullet’. Solutions must be developed that transform the underlying processes of governance and communication and which address socio-educational as well as digital disadvantage at both a policy and practice level…”

Another great excerpt from the Evolution of Digital Engagement Section…

As our democratic and cultural landscapes have changed, the range of tools now available to governments and citizens has grown significantly over the last fifteen years. Engagement can now occur in many different ways and any number of different stages in the policy process. This offers the potential to engage and retain citizen participation throughout the lifecycle of policy development, service implementation and review. When we look back over the (actually quite long) history of the civic internet, we can see that there are three distinct evolutionary phases, or ages, of digital engagement:

The first age started with discussion boards. Mostly these were community based and led, governments rarely if ever got directly involved. They were useful for co-ordinating and sharing, for raising public consciousness around an issue but little else. Government agencies at this time rarely undertook any direct digital engagement and the internet was limited to publishing documents (often as large and inaccessible PDFs).

This early model of digital democracy moved into government-owned and managed platforms for engagement and consultations. These sites were usually bespoke and localised and include such things as e-Petitions. The rise in this model of digital democracy parallels the rise in digital government (or e-government). However, where the digitisation of transactional services offers clear economic benefits and process improvements, the democratic benefits are less obvious and often more intangible, leading to a more piecemeal and inconsistent uptake.

The second age of digital democracy has been overtaken and enhanced by two key factors. First is the advent of social media and second is the increasing trend towards the publication of open data repositories. In this model, citizens, government and third party agents can create ‘mash-ups’ and dynamic digital resources for communities to become more active citizens, linking these directly to government processes. Open data has the benefit of increasing the transparency of government, providing better opportunities for public scrutiny of government transactions and outcomes. However, it is only effective if civic actors have the skills to analyse and manage the data. Data for data’s sake is not a panacea. Both open data and engagement through social media suffer from the primary restriction of earlier phases of digital engagement, namely ownership and control.

Resource Link: http://futuredigital.eu/docs/FutureBriefing.DigitalEngagement.2012.pdf (free download)

Future Digital website:  www.futuredigital.eu

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