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Hype and Hope for Digital Citizen Engagement

Friday, March 18, 2016
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

If we were to place digital citizen engagement on the Hype Cycle, I suspect we'd be pinning it in the trough of disillusionment.

The Hype Cycle idea is this: for any emerging idea or technology, it goes through a period of inflated expectations, then a trough in which people think it won't amount to anything, and then it settles into the "plateau of productivity" somewhere between the two.

Five years ago, people were really excited about the idea of digital citizen engagement: nation-wide discourse on the topics of the day, free to all, on a level playing field. Instead we've gotten this:


Publications are disabling comments forums because the quality of the discourse is so low. The experts in the field are very much so in the design and research stage, and the most sophisticated online deliberation models (like MIT's Deliberatorium) are still being tweaked and studied.

And while governments have had to react to powerful political mobilization and public will on social media (read Vox's take on How the Internet is Disrupting Politics), government-led digital citizen engagement has hardly become a game-changer for governance.

Digital citizen engagement is going to be a whole big thing

Yet, I'm pretty confident that digital citizen engagement will be hugely important in the future. Not because it's better than existing analog or in-person ways of getting citizens' ideas and feedback, but despite the fact that it's demonstrably worse.

MOOCs - Massive, Open, Online Courses - are the perfect analogy. North of 90% of people that register don't finish (though because they're new(ish), people will sign up for novelty; there'll be less of that in the future (see: Hype Cycles)). Deloitte's resident predictions expert, Duncan Stewart, has listed all of the many problems with MOOCs and still concludes that they'll still be a huge part of education and even credentials in the future. It's simply because university keeps getting more expensive, especially relative to entry-level salaries. The nexus of market forces demand the distribution model that only the internet allows.

Likewise, digital citizen engagement is, on balance, worse than the suite of options governments have to engage in-person. It's less engaging, less conducive to developing trust and relationships, and poorly suited to dissecting complex issues. But, it's the only way to even approach fairness and scale, and I think that this imperative will overpower any limitations or weaknesses.

Canada has a population of ~35M people. You can provide an opportunity for the first 12.7M to engage with government by visiting only 5 cities. But after that it gets tricky, and the next 95 biggest urban centres only get you 10.7M people. And after that, there's still 11.7M Canadians to go.


Imperfect but better

A couple closing thoughts:

One, the level playing field of the internet isn't actually level. There are still massive distributional biases in internet use*, leisure time, civic literacy, trust in government, and cultures of deference or irreverence. These will need to systematically managed. (Even municipal 311 systems have distributional biases; even big data isn't always full data.)

Two, digital citizen engagement tools are getting better, What's available to the Government of Canada today (via standing offers) is a huge improvement over only a few years ago. And the more these tools get used, the better they'll get (and the bigger the market will be for bilingual, accessible platforms). And the better people will get at using them.




*"Internet use among the richer half of the country is actually over 90 per cent with the top quartile of household income at 94.5 per cent and the second quartile at 90.2 per cent. Internet use among the bottom quartile of Canadians stands at only 62.5 per cent (the third quartile is 77.8 per cent)." - Michael Geist in the Toronto Star