Increased citizen participation in government: Fad or new reality? Part Four

Increased citizen participation in both nonprofits and government seems to parallel the rise of the new economy. Can we harness the interest to both improve governance and satisfy citizens?

Today’s preferred forms of communication by most people are computer-driven, and most now use some form of wireless connections, whether through cellular phone networks or wireless computer technology. If you think a group of committed citizens who meets regularly with an elected official is the best means of communicating the issues the government body is working on and gathering input from citizens, do it. If that is too time consuming, and a similar group connected wirelessly fits your community, set it up. Maybe your community is ready for a more ongoing, less time-restricted form of two way communication with constituents, give it a try. Are your current social media outlets too distracting for your purposes? Then create a new one with more focus. If the staff in your government is too busy providing their state or federally mandated services to set something up, contract with someone under 35 to create it. The tools are plentiful, and rapidly-evolving.

Gregory Saxton says in his concluding paragraph of “The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management” that, “In the participatory society, all managers…role(s) will increasingly involve leading their organization to respond and adapt to a progressively more participatory strategic environment featuring transparent information, loose hierarchies, inter-organizational collaborations, new types of organizations and workers, bottom-up and open-source models, “temporary” and technologically based participatory decision-making procedures, and broader and deeper input from organizational constituents.”

Our economic model used to be based on opening a storefront, setting some hours, deciding what payment forms to take, inviting customers to come visit and then waiting for them to come in and purchase. Today, we have taken the store to the customer on devices they carry around with them every day, making it possible for them to buy anytime, anywhere. Our government models have been based on scheduling meetings, putting decisions and issues on the agenda, gathering at the meeting place, inviting people to come in and watch and seeing only a few show up. As our economies and people’s expectations have changed, not much has changed with our government models. We are still waiting for people to be interested enough to show up and they typically do only when something really upsets them.

We will always need some brick and mortar stores, and we will have government “meetings” for open deliberation for a long time to come. We can, however, improve the process, improve the quality of our decisions and programs, and become more open and participatory, if we use the technology to bring government to the people. We often moan about the fact that the only experience most people have with their governments is through the press, and the press only talks about the problems, the things that sell newspapers and airtime. Imagine the potential impact of citizens understanding and appreciating government and what it does, if they get the whole story, in the form of two-way communication, straight from the source.

This is the fourth of a four part series on the Michigan State University Extension web site. If you missed the first three, part one will get you started on the rest. 

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