Participation, seen differently

27. janvāris, 2010

This blog has been somewhat moribund for the last half a year or so, and the only way I see of reviving it is to stop discussing unappetising subjects such as the racist pranks of marginal politicians, and to write of more inspiring things instead.

Discriminatory political discourses are still there (in many places in Europe as elsewhere in the world), but they will have to do without my attention for now.

There are good and sunny and encouraging things happening in public life – such as the incredible proliferation of ideas on how to use the Internet for increasing people’s participation in making society a better place to live. MySociety.org probably has more fans than any political party in Britain, and that is a good thing. Never trust a politician to solve things for you – unless you can check on him/her at any point in their work, can tell what you think about their progress so far, make a couple of suggestions on how to do things better, and be heard. Luckily for those of us who would not settle on less, it seems that the times of top-down communication in politics are gone even in some of the poorer corners of the EU – such as Latvia. Last Saturday’s govcamp Latvia 2010 was a wonderfully energising event for those who are keen to test the opportunities offered by modern Internet solutions for making government a more open business.

The most exciting thing about the whole event was the clash of ideas – ideas expressed by bright-eyed enthusiasts believing that government can be made better and more participation-oriented here and now, and ideas expressed by bored sceptics from higher levels of state-run business. The critiques those sceptics expressed during the main debate were not original, but they can serve as examples of corporativist top-down thinking that may be the greatest barrier for the enthusiasts. One widespread critique is that wider participation via Internet will lead to irresponsible public administration. The other is that ideas of mass involvement are unrealistic and ‘far-fetched’.

I do not think so. Ideas from hotbeds of government innovations such as New Zealand and Australia may sound far-fetched at first, especially in a country with relatively low incomes, but since the basic infrastructure is there (people have fairly good access to the Internet), interactive tools for participation can be set up at no extravagant cost. If the inhabitants of Melbourne were able to draft the city’s development plan using wiki technology, why not trust the inhabitants of Riga to do the same? All that is needed is a change of attitude, and it may be coming sooner than some people expect.

The other critique is more hypocritical by far. If involving the public in generating ideas for better policies and even in direct decision-making makes for an ‘irresponsible’ public administration, what does it say about our understanding of responsibility? Do we translate responsibility as ‘top-down control’? Anyone who has had a quick look at websites such as FixMyStreet or They Work for You would surely agree that involving MORE people in running a coutry or a village is a kind of quality assurance when done in a constructive manner. If anything, wider participation by the public increases responsible behaviour among civil servants and politicians, not vice versa. Of course, there are ways in which mass participation can be perverted and become dangerous for human rights (mass support for populist extremism is not unknown in history), but that is unlikely to happen without irresponsible politicians and opinion leaders getting involved. The Internet, after all, is only a tool.

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