Who gets to define Citizen Participation?

Peter JonesWu Wei

A week ago 200 people in Toronto started a movement called ChangeCamp, a rapid-response unconference of tech, design, and policy/government people who engaged the question:
How do we re-imagine government and citizenship in the age of participation?

ChangeCamp session

I drove up from Dayton the day before ChangeCamp and showed up at 9:00 ready to go. We do not often create these types of opportunities for engagement in the US. We mostly work through issue groups, or local citizen activist groups. With the monstrous problems in the US over the last 8 years, we have been fighting for peace, justice, human rights, civil rights, and fair elections (I’m from Ohio and have seen my share of unfair up close). And we have celebrated the Obama era with hope, expectancy, and mostly relief.

But ChangeCamp was in my new hometown of Toronto, and I was delighted to be a supporter and to lead a session (I co-led Citizen Participation in Policy Making with Karen Smith).

Peter Kafka reported Obama’s office of Citizen Participation was positioned under its New Media group, a tech-media group.

“Barack Obama has yet to announce who his chief technology officer will be. But he has hired a Silicon Valley exec for another role: Google product manager Katie Jacobs Stanton will be the new President’s “director of citizen participation,” starting in March, sources tell me.

Many of the comments made critiques similar to mine, by the way, which is a good sign. Other blogs have taken up the issue after Kafka’s article. Including mine, as I posted a full version of this review on the Canadian new media site Red Liberals.ca.

This should be good news, after all Stanton is “one of us,” of the nearly 200 people at ChangeCamp, most were technology or new media people. But we actively engage in citizen participation events and issues – none of us are passive participants. The event size was limited and (while free) it sold out. The emphasis was on understanding how our resources can be brought to change, not what cool new tools we might build (OK, a few of those but that was not the point).

No, what’s disappointing is that Obama blew a chance to really give citizen participation some power.  This could easily be the office of Citizen Placation. They created a bad precedent to position an office of “citizen participation” in a technology group. Participation is a political process, and by putting it under New Media, they are ensuring our voices will be heard as “thank you for sharing.” There are no good ways to identify true shared priorities with the kinds of online forums available today. There are known problems – which we call the Errnoneous Priorities Effect – even within well-facilitated F2F engagements. Online, this problem has not been solved.

So we will now all be marginalized equally – rich and poor – by having a common channel for participation pre-selected for us. Imagine if this were in Bush’s administration – we would probably be makign a real fuss about it. Will Obama be able to act on the citizen expressions filtered up through many layers of power from this channel? We shall see.