This post, partner to a previous one on institutional barriers to successful online engagement, looks at engagement issues from the citizen's perspective.
It includes ideas and findings from these academic papers and articles, which are worth reading:
Getting the basics right
If citizens are being asked to take part in an initiative, what are the ground rules for their participation?
One of the key points which crops up in any discussion of public participation is the importance of the final decision-making power.
As Cobb and Hamlett write:
"The usual criticism of such public involvement efforts is that they come too late in the decision-making process to be able to actually influence it; the more cynical claim that such public involvement practices are merely window dressing meant to ratify decisions already made prior to public involvement."
Nanz and Dalferth also make this point, and go further in proposing a radical solution to it:
"Our vision comprises a constitutional framework that establishes public participation in the larger political setting and defines the relationship between participatory arrangements and representative democracy.
"The framework would specify how outcomes of participatory processes are linked with policy action. It would provide different rules for the different aims of the participatory processes: informing citizens; consulting them on a given issue; or directly involving them in policy-making.
"The framework would provide an interface between citizens and decision-makers. It would help dispel citizens' perceptions that they are co-opted or not taken seriously. Public participation must have a meaningful impact on public policy; when it is used instrumentally to obtain public approval for decisions taken beforehand, it does not improve democratic legitimacy."
While a constitutional framework is not really a prerequisite for participation, clarity about what outcomes might result from the participation is hugely important. Anything less is almost certain to generate cynicism amongst those taking part.
Dimensions of engagement
With certainty over decision-making, it is possible to consider some of the other factors which influence the ways in which citizens might participate.
For example, Cooper, Bryer and Meek identified five aspects to citizen engagement.
- Who is involved? This covers issues such as the size, depth, and diversity of citizen participation and ensuring it is not just the 'squeaky wheel' which gets the attention.
- Who initiates civic engagement? Encompassing factors such as whether it is top-down or bottom-up, grassroots or professional, organised by the government or civil society.
- Why are citizens involved? Are they asked to help on policy creation or policy implementation?
- Where does the engagement take place? Which level of government is consulting, and through dispersed public hearings or some other mechanism. Each local area has its own biases and culture.
- How are citizens involved? Through competition or collaboration, with mediation or without it?
Issues such as these highlight the importance of bureaucratic values and processes in deciding the ways in which engagement does or does not take place.
As Yang and Callahan wrote, "citizen involvement is a manifestation of bureaucratic responsiveness to citizens".
But what other factors influence the way in which citizens might participate online?
Birchall notes that in 2004 Ann Macintosh described 10 key dimensions of e-participation initiatives:
- Level of participation.
- Stage in decision-making.
- Technologies used.
- Rules of engagement (privacy, registration, site rules).
- Duration and sustainability.
- Accessibility (digital divide and website accessibility).
- Resources and promotion.
- Evaluation and outcomes.
- Critical factors for success.
Meanwhile, Birchall, in his excellent post, lists the useful principles that Beth Noveck used when designing Unchat such as accessibility, free speech, accountability, transparency, facilitation, transcripts for latecomers to catch up and forced exposure to relevant information.
(Update: See also this post for more engagement advice)
Such factors need to be thought through beforehand in order to deliver a good online experience.
Making good websites
However, when it comes to evaluating actual experiences of participation, it tends to be done from the viewpoint of the organisation which ran the project. Zaman makes the important point that:
"To date, research in this area has predominantly been from the organization perspective and lacking in the citizen's (individual) perspective."
This is an oversight, given that members of the public are the intended beneficiaries (Direct.gov.uk is something of an exception in its transparency about feedback). And public perceptions of these websites is a key mechanism by which they judge the success of investment in eGovernment and eDemocracy projects (there might be others too, such as apps built on open data).
Zaman looked at the relationship between the quality of a public sector website (PSW) and citizen involvement, and also whether a citizen's expectations matter in achieving the goal of involvement via PSWs.
The paper concluded that a citizen's prior expectations "will not have a significant direct effect on their satisfaction with PSW".
But there is a positive link between satisfaction with a PSW and both its quality and the citizen's involvement in the political system.
What do citizens get from engaging?
It is also worth considering what citizens get from engaging with government.
Sometimes the benefits might be clear-cut, such as an improved service of which they have direct experience.
Cobb and Hamlett also identify some other less tangible benefits.
"Effective public deliberations, as an integral part of the agenda setting, aggregation, and policy formulation stages of the policy process, will generate public decisions with significantly greater legitimacy than decisions reached without such public involvement.
"Decisions that clearly embody informed public input of this kind should, additionally, reduce the levels of public opposition to those decisions, which may allow for significantly improved implementation.
"There may be a reduction of various forms of policy obstruction, including administrative and judicial delays. There is evidence that even citizens who did not, themselves, participate in deliberating about a specific policy decision find those decisions more acceptable if they know that other citizens were actively involved."
Other benefits include the creation of "civic learning opportunities for participants and observers", covering the range of technical, economic, and political aspects of the issue being discussed.
Participants also learn "the difficulties of balancing goods and evils, making fair trade-offs, etc" and are shifted away from a focus on personal goals and towards solutions which can work for the common good.
"In this way, deliberative democracy can serve the common good where models of democracy based on narrow self-interest and negotiation may fail. Thus, participating in effective public deliberations provides a training ground for citizens, a setting in which they are encouraged to develop essential democratic qualities: Moreover, like scientific inquiry, democratic discourse requires certain character traits; perhaps we may call them deliberative virtues. Among these is the capacity to proportion belief to evidence, the ability to suspend judgment when evidence is lacking, a willingness to change one's mind when evidence requires, healthy skepticism and distrust of authority, and an eagerness to examine claims critically and cooperatively."
The opposing view is that deliberation doesn't work, isn't necessary anyway and could be harmful if some groups are advantaged over others.
However, after analysing the data from one deliberative exercise, Cobb and Hamlett concluded that the process of deliberation does not significantly shift opinion to the strongly-held extreme views in a "polarization cascade" and nor does the 'mean view' of a group shift further in the direction of its initial bias during the course of a discussion.
"It appears that while the polarization cascade process is a legitimate concern for anyone considering public deliberations, the structure and organization of the specific deliberative exercise can be effective in blunting the polarization process."
They also note that in any event, not all polarisation is explicitly bad.
"Missing is the possibility that a polarization effect might derive from appropriately cognitive sources, such as learning and the power of better arguments."
Participation in the US
Bowler and Donovan, meanwhile, also examined whether participation engages citizens and leads them to have a more positive regard for political processes and democratic practices by looking at American states with substantial variations in their provisions for direct voter participation in legislation.
Looking at the 1992 American National Election Study, they concluded that the data was "consistent with the theory that direct participatory models of democracy may encourage a greater sense of efficacy, and possibly, civic engagement".
"People living in states that use more initiatives tend to have more positive views of their own political abilities and look more favourably on the responsiveness of government."
Bowler and Donovan caution, however, that it is difficult to judge whether perceptions are shaped by the actual policies of certain citizen initiatives or whether they are just a response to the "sound and fury" of initiative politics.
"It is possible then, that citizens may receive a false sense of empowerment from the use of initiatives if ballot measures have no consequence on policy, or if these measures advance policies that are inconsistent with the preferences of most citizens in a state.
"We do not expect that this is the case, however. There is mounting evidence that direct democracy does influence legislative behaviour by encouraging legislators to adopt policies that more closely mirror mass preferences.
"It seems reasonable to expect that a significant number of citizens are aware of this in direct democracy states and, thus, feel a greater sense of political efficacy than citizens in non-initiative states. In an era when cynicism about politics is high, these findings should not be seen as trivial."