Facilitating citizen engagement to improve governance

Code for America is an initiative that was established as a “new non-profit” organization that is a perfect representation of technological participation, where few web developers and technology experts are creating platforms to empower the community. Beyond technological participation, this initiative embodies all participation forms highlighting certain aspects at a time depending on the project.

The first time I encountered Code for America, was during the conduct of the literature review for my master thesis on the application of technology toward participatory governance. There were five aspects of this initiative that immediately captured my attention: the diversity of undertaken tasks, the direct involvement with the government, the immediate citizens participation, the open source program development, the evolving infrastructure to support and collaborate with new initiatives

In other words, this example presents a promising model where everyone can have a significant role in different parts of the process, starting from a community level and gradually reaching a local, state or even national stage. Of course this is a long-term, multilevel and complicated aspiration, but what matters most is the potential and the possibility to adjust this business model and address community issues beyond the United States.

With this idea in mind, in January 2013, I  traveled to San Francisco where I met with the founder of this new kind of public service, Jennifer Pahlka.  We started the conversation discussing the management model of autonomy, mastery and purpose by Daniel Pink and whether it would be applicable in governance over the course of the next decade. Per this theory, Pink advocates that people need self-direction (autonomy), they want to get better at doing things (mastery) and they also want to contribute to a greater purpose. The purpose is to discover what gets people motivated, and this is what Code For America capitalizes on.

The purpose of becoming an active community member is a noble one, but is not an easy one to convey. In many countries including the United States, it is extremely challenging to shift the mentality of people toward simple participation forms such as voting, let alone more complex initiatives like participatory decision-making. This is a result of the hierarchical function of governance up until now, which makes citizens to believe their voice will have no impact.

People will be better prepared to contribute to governance if they begin by making a difference in their community first. Educating citizens to appreciate the power to choose where they want to make a difference, become better and contribute to the resolution of a problem for the common benefit, must start with smaller endeavors. In Boston the project to Adopt a Fire Hydrant, is an example of a small responsibility that teaches participants how to give back to the community allocating a little of their time. Simple tasks like this is a way to teach people how a small contribution can make a big difference for the community.

The greater question that raised from this conversation with Jennifer, is how much time do you really have to form behaviors in countries in crisis, like Greece, where the need of citizen action to change the status quo is imminent? In contrast to healthy democracies, where the average citizen needs an incentive to develop interest in politics or the overall governance, countries in crisis present a different scene.

As the recent protests from the Arab Spring, to Spain, Greece and the Occupy move have demonstrated, people who live under non democratic regimes or in countries in crisis, have a significantly stronger interest in politics and therefore are more likely to engage and contribute to a greater purpose aiming to ameliorate the political situation in their countries.

These uprising examples of recent history, present a great sample of what can be achieved by supporting the power of human capital with technology. However, the aftermath of those moves highlighted the difference between mobilization and organization. The aforementioned cases present a great example of citizen mobilization under a cause, but the absence of central organization concluded with citizen inaction.

This observation emphasizes the importance of organization for the pursuit of a sustainable participatory model that will lead to a better community infrastructure. This is where organizations like Code For America have a role to play. By providing an open source platform for everyone to contribute and continue adding new tools to address new needs, the people have the power to create a new kind of institution and shape the new kind of governance.

The new kind of governance idea is not to say that the existing government structure should be replaced. By facilitating active citizen involvement in non-governmental participatory incentives with community impact, citizens create a trend that will be followed by governments and captured by the media. This idea is not a novice concept taking into consideration the debut of social media and how from being considered unreliable or unprofessional, they now constitute an information channel that is embraced and incorporated by institutions across the spectrum.

One comment

  1. Damiri

    Hey Aaron, I’m referring to the ppolee in the organization that are already responsible for day to day interaction with clients and/or citizens (e.g. the best example is Dell training 9000 of its customer service staff in monitoring and engagement). Ideally, they should be the ones trained in engaging on the official accounts of the organization on a daily basis (not the best use of content expert time necessarily). In certain organizations (especially smaller ones) that job is undertaken by the content experts simply due to resource constraints. That being said, whoever is responsible for the official account engagement should be empowered to quickly reach the appropriate experts should they have to. Also, the content experts are likely to be participating and building their own personal brands concurrently. The two responsibility areas are not mutually exclusive. Finally, everyone who by nature is proactive and passionate about their field should at the very least be monitoring their community/industry.

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