The opportunity for public services of truly engaged expert citizens

The World Wide Web was invented in 1989 and Google was incorporated as a company nearly a decade later, in 1998. AirBnB started in 2007 and Uber in 2009.

I wonder why there was such a big delay between the web and Google, and then Google and AirBnB, Uber etc., and then a subsequent delay in their reaching a tipping point in terms of awareness and use by the general public?

I ask this because there have been a very wide number of approaches and initiatives for improving public services, not least health and social care, through technology and particularly the web. For example, there have been care comparison sites a-plenty, much talk of open data and suggestions of location-based services to replace off- and online directories. And yet we see relatively little evidence of these approaching a tipping point, let alone being used regularly by local authorities, providers and the general public when it comes to health and social care.

The prompt for these thoughts is this excellent, detailed post at Policy Exchange about the rise of the citizen expert.

In it Beth Simone Noveck (former United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative) takes as a starting point another area of public policy – citizen engagement – and notes how the obvious opportunity to improve public services and local communities hasn’t been taken in the way it could have been.

Citizen engagement isn’t just the equivalent of technology: it’s clearly bigger than that. Beth makes clear this point by showing how better harnessing the interests and expertise of citizens can help both bridge the democratic divide and make the most of people in contributing to their local communities and society.

The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise so that the person who has taken courses on an online learning platform can showcase those credentials with a searchable digital badge. The person who has answered thousands of questions on a question-and-answer website can demonstrate their practical ability and willingness to help. Ratings by other users further attest to the usefulness of their contributions. In short, it is becoming possible to discover what people know and can do in ever more finely tuned ways and match people to opportunities to participate that speak to their talents.

But she also notes the most significant barrier to this: the continued dominance / monopoly of policy- and service-elites in the work that they do:

[There is a] long-held belief, even among reformers, that only professional public servants or credentialed elites possess the requisite abilities to govern in a complex society.

Why? Because it is believed

Citizens are spectators who can express opinions but cognitive incapacity, laziness or simply the complexity of modern society limit participation to asking people what they feel by means of elections, opinion polls, or social media.

The shifting of the cause of the problem of a lack of engagement onto citizens themselves rather than the professionals asking the questions is a familiar refrain. We regularly hear laments about “the usual suspects”, limited response rates or adversarial consultation processes that create more problems than they solve.

But this characterisation of this situation only makes sense for one set of players: it suits both the technocratic elites who dominate public policy and services, and the other well-embedded elites with (vested) interests who can mobilise quickly to respond to consultation/engagement that affect their organisations.

It is, of course, a characterisation that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. For example, we know that (proper) co-production in health and social care has a solid evidence base in the difference it makes. But we also know it continues to be at best a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.

Thus we come back to the questions kicking about in my mind at the start of this post: if the ability to do this sort of thing exists (be it citizen engagement or technology), why hasn’t social care and the like made the most of this opportunity?

It’s largely because elites aren’t yet comfortable with distributing leadership and expertise.

One of the ways to overcome this discomfort, then, is to make it valuable and rational for the existing elites to engage in effective citizen engagement by ensuring a ‘good’ group of people are engaged and involved in public service reform in the first place.

Noveck rightly says:

To make all forms of engagement more effective, we need to increase the likelihood that the opportunity to participate will be known to those who need to participate. If a city really wants to improve the chances of crafting a workable plan for bike lanes, it should be able to reach out to urban planners, transportation engineers, cyclists, and cab drivers and offer them ways to participate meaningfully. When a public organisation needs hands on help from techies to build better websites or data crunching from data scientists, it needs to be able to connect.

To do this:

[I]nstitutions [must] begin to leverage such platforms to match the need for expertise to the demand for it and, in the process, increase engagement becoming more effective and more legitimate.

This is appealing. Citizen engagement may not be valued by elites because there hasn’t been adequate effort or ability to engage sufficient citizens to make it worthwhile enough.

As Noveck concludes:

This is about chances for civic participation; to be a member of a local community and to make a contribution based on this… It has everything to do with what it means to be a citizen in a contemporary democracy.

This is why I particularly like this: this isn’t just about technical changes around the edges of public service economies, but the broad meaningful difference it could make.

 

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rich_w

Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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