Making the citizens voices heard

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Paolo Mefalopulos had some interesting thoughts on the need for a different concept of communication in the context of development on the blog of the Communication for Governance and Accountability Programme of the World Bank:

If good governance is largely about strengthening citizens’ voices on the demand side, which in turn will also help enhance accountability and transparency on the supply side, it is clear that the traditional conception of communication – transmitting messages through given channels to “target audiences” – is not enough to achieve the intended results. What is needed to strengthen citizens’ voices and enable their active participation is a space where individuals feel safe and stimulated to be part of the processes leading to change.

As I highlighted in an earlier post, social media is about empowering people. Using the tools and concepts of web2.0 means that we have to change the way we traditionally interact with each other.

Let me give a practical example of using a wiki for producing a report on an issue. Traditionally, a person, or a group of persons will draft the report and send it for feedback to the people selected to ask. The feedback comes back to the group and gets incorporated in the document on the basis of what the drafting persons find relevant. Although the process might be very open and transparent with regards to what has been included and what not, in the end the decision will always be taken on the side of the drafting person.

Using a wiki, this process will be opened by inviting the same group of people, but potentially more, to edit the document. With everyone being able to make changes and reverse changes in a “safe space” the discussions become more transparent, but also less controlled. This de-centralising of control and empowering of each participant in the discussion can be frightening to the ones that are used to lead a discussion. It also does not necessarily mean that the process will be more productive. But it will increase the engagement and the committement of all participants and may question established perceptions and points of views of issues.

Now think how long it takes to change a process such as this one in your organisation. It becomes clear that adapting these processes to an even broader audience such as the citizens of a country will need time. But with the tools developed and looking at the videos on youtube, the images on flickr.com and the groups and causes on facebook.com, people starting to make us of them, it may not take as long as we may think.

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2 Responses to “Making the citizens voices heard”

  1. Doy Romero Says:

    I like the idea that social media will empower citizens by making their voices heard. Let me explore the idea of how these voices should eventually be voices of publics and communities, and how they can be taken within a purposive community (or national) problem-solving context.

    Social media should enable citizens to perform civic duties better. These include identifying and diagnosing community problems, generating, sharing, and evaluating and prioritizing options and alternative courses of action, assigning human, material, and other resources to implementation tasks, and monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of the problem-solving enterprise.

    While citizens must be engaged individually, the end result of the use of social media is to enable citizens to see themselves as part of groups at various levels of aggregation, along the lines of the family, the workplace, the school, the community, the city, the nation, and eventually, global publics.

    Social media allows the creation and sustenance of these various levels of publics, an enterprise that has not been possible until now.

    Social media allows the dyadic linkages to be created, habits of communication and interaction to be developed, and social and political discourses sustained. As the word “social” indicates, the focus is on the integral unity of the groups that belong to social units or groups. These groups are now no longer limited by geography and time, as social media allows them to interact across geography and time.

    An important concept is that of social group awareness, the awareness of citizens that they belong to a public; in fact, several publics defined as attentiveness to certain issues and concerns. Social media empowers citizens to participate and contribute as members of various publics, be these in the nature of cause-oriented groups around human rights, gender, environment, etc., or interest-groups around the arts, disciplines, sciences, etc.

    Social media have allowed people to create and maintain a web of relationships.

    Social media can aid in fighting corruption in a way that other media cannot. It creates an awareness of, and affect for, the larger community. If corruption is the privatization of public resources, if corruption is the betrayal of the public trust, it is clear that in the generic sense, corruption is about a net transfer of resources from the commons to private property and wealth. Fighting corruption is easiest in a society where “people plant trees under whose shade they will not sit.”

    Apart from the discrete transactions and interactions that social media allows, it is in the making tangible an intangible concept – a virtual community of shared concerns and interests – through a commonly experienced web of relationships, that social media creates the foundation for integrity, and intolerance of corruption.

    It is easy to be corrupt, to privatize public resources, when one does not see who gets injured or disadvantaged by one’s corrupt act. In allowing citizens to have a palpable sense of all the communities he belongs to, social media enables the citizen to be sensitive to the general welfare in each of these communities, and enables everyone else affected, to check his behavior through peer pressure and other collective guidance mechanisms.

    The ultimate contribution of social media to the fight against corruption, therefore, is the enhancement and magnification of the importance of communities to what it ought to be, beyond what is now possible due to ignorance and silo effects as a result of the limitations of traditional media of communications.

    From the perspective of political ideologies, social media are a neutral tool – they can be used for democratic as well as for autocratic and totalitarian processes. They could be used to build and maintain Orwellian political and social orders, or they could bring back more direct, more participatory democracies.

    Social media need to be purposively designed and advocated to maximize integrity, accountability, transparency, and a democratic political and social order. That is the challenge to our anti-corruption community.

  2. Georg Neumann Says:

    Doy, thanks so much for these comments. I think they are very much to the point. I like the idea you mention in the beginning of the post where you mention that social media should enable citizens to perform their duties better. As an example, a new website called http://www.whitehouse2.org gathers an agenda built by citizen on the key priorities for the first 100 days of the new president (see also: http://news.smh.com.au/technology/new-websites-suggest-agenda-cabinet-for-next-us-president-20081030-5bkd.html).

    Other examples are bigdialog.org and opencabinet.org.

    This shows that citizen are already taking the ideas in their hands in a genuine grassroots approach.

    But as you say, in the end, the medium is neutral, and it can be used independently from political orientation, and even democratic values.

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