First 100 Days: Harness the genie of citizen engagement

dontapscottheadshotDon Tapscott is chairman of the think tank nGenera Insight and the author of 13 books on the impact of the Internet on society. His latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World, discusses the Obama campaign and its implications for democracy. The views expressed are his own.

When President Obama announced last month that he’ll ask ordinary Americans to help him change America, it didn’t take long for the influencers inside the Washington beltway to ring the alarm: What happens if ordinary Americans actually come up with some new ideas to run government? Will things get out of control? Will they become bullies who will force Obama and Congressional lawmakers to bend to their will?

To me, they sound a lot like the traditional marketers who are worried that they’re losing control over their brand. Both marketers and lawmakers are struggling to adjust to a digital world where consumers and voters now have powerful tools to talk back, and even influence the brand or the policy. So let me give the Washington lawmakers the same message I have delivered to the marketers: Let go. You can’t control everything. The genie has slipped out of the bottle and she’s not coming back. And I think this is a really good thing.

For far too long, we’ve been living in what I’ve called a broadcast democracy. Voters only count during election time. They have little or no influence in between elections, when the lawmakers and influencers are in charge and citizenry is inert. The “you vote, I rule” model was all that was possible, until recently.

What the system has lacked until now are mechanisms enabling government to benefit from the wisdom and insight that a nation can collectively offer — on an ongoing basis. I’m not proposing some kind of direct democracy, where citizens can vote every night on the evening news or Web sites. That would be tantamount to a digital mob.

What I am proposing is a way to allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process – to get them engaged in public life. When citizens become active, good things can happen. We all learn from each other. Initiatives get catalyzed. People become active in improving their communities, country and the world.
This is long overdue. These days, the policy specialists and advisers on the public-sector payroll can barely keep pace with defining the problems, let alone craft the solutions. Government can’t begin to amass the in-house expertise to deal with the myriad challenges that arise. Governments need to create opportunities for sustained dialogue between voters and the elected.

Courtesy of the Internet, public officials can now solicit citizen input at almost no cost, by providing Web-based background information, online discussion, and feedback mechanisms. Government can now involve citizens in setting the policy agenda, which can then be refined on an ongoing basis. Such activity engages and mobilizes citizens, catalyzing real-life initiatives in communities and society as a whole.

When Obama launched Organizing for America, his dialogue with citizens, the idea was to channel the unprecedented grassroots campaign that propelled him to victory into the hard business of changing America. Organizing for America will “talk about and work on the pressing issues facing the country,” said Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe. Obama “believes in grassroots politics,” said Organizing for America’s executive director Mitch Stewart. “He’s going to be your partner. He’s going to listen.”

The first test of the idea came at the weekend, when thousands of meetings of Obama supporters took place across the country. What’s not clear yet is how the president intends to use the Internet to tap into the public’s thinking.

There are lots of Internet-enabled ways to engage America, from policy wikis, citizen juries, deliberative polling, ideation contests, and virtual town halls. I call one of the most promising the digital brainstorm. This is an online way to bring together policy officials and citizens in a real-time, moderated session, to exchange ideas and identify new policy issues and strategies and to mobilize the citizenry.

Here’s how it would work. The president would say, “We’re going to have a national discussion on revitalizing our cities. It starts on Monday at noon and ends the same week on Friday at noon. Anyone can participate through the Web 2.0 discussion community we’ve set up. If you don’t have Internet access, I’ve partnered with corporations, schools, libraries, community computing centers, and shopping malls to give you access. We’ll post background papers. We’ll organize the discussion by region and also by interest groups. There’ll be a business discussion, a discussion of public transit users, and so on. As you participate in the discussion rate the ideas that you come across and the best ideas will rise to the top. I’ll participate daily and give my views. At the end of the process we’ll explore our options for further action.”

The goal is to have a conversation in which people become engaged in political life; think about issues; get active in improving their communities; and mobilize society for positive change. Politicians and citizens alike would become more informed and learn from each other. And collectively we would take a step away from broadcast and toward participatory democracy. As an exercise in government 2.0, it could show that power can be exercised through people, not over people.

I’m currently working with government leaders in several countries to conduct brainstorms of all their citizens. Interestingly, the main topic of choice is climate change, using a question such as “How could our country more effectively contribute to the fight against global warming?” or “How could we reduce carbon emissions in our country?”

If Obama really wants to change America, he should hold digital brainstorms for all Americans, and he should make sure the young people – the Net Geners who have grown up digital – are involved. He’ll need a social movement of young people to bring about real change. This can only happen in public – not through backroom negotiations. Only through open struggle and conflict can a real and lasting change take place.