An online collective social process based on the Group Forming Networks (GFN) model with third party facilitation (perhaps via a community foundation or other local nonprofit) offers an effective solution for successful resident engagement for public policy making. It is essential that the process be accepted by elected officials and other policy making agencies that must contribute information and data for the networks, and accept the collaboration of their subgroups and participants as valid, deliberative civic engagement.
Residents will become engaged around a policy discussion (and perhaps join a network on the topic) based on a certain variables including:
- interest, existing knowledge or expertise in the subject matter;
- personal or community impact or relevance from decisions surrounding the policy topic(s); and
- belief that participation will lead to real or visible outcome or resolution.
Government (as policy maker) must support these networks by providing objective, in-depth information about a policy issue, project or challenge to establish and feed a knowledge base for citizen/resident education.
Government needs informed citizen participation that helps address its many challenges with new ideas and knowledge. It is in their best interest to embrace structured networks to increase resident participation and consensus in the policy making process, and to increase efficiency in providing programs and services. But it should not be responsible for maintaining these networks.
Because of legal, political and technological challenges government is not suited to steward the social media environment of GFNs and all that comes with it. Instead, a third party facilitator such as a community foundation or other nonprofit, civic organization or public (education) institution should have that responsibility on behalf of the resident constituents. These bodies have the latitude to embrace social media solutions that meet public wants, needs and expectations for how they access information and communication, vertically and horizontally.
There is also a technology challenge. As cited by David Bollier in his April blog post The Next Great Internet Disruption: Authority and Governance, when it comes to realizing the potential of GFNs, the need is to “develop a network architecture and software systems that can build trust and social capital in user-centric, scalable ways.” In other words, the solution must facilitate GFNs along with their many subgroups and network members in a structured online environment that provides standards, practices and processes that all participants can work with and value as an effective form of civic engagement among the many constituencies.
Building trust and value into a system is important for its use and acceptance, but not a guarantee. Still, citizens or residents and their governing bodies need, want and expect (at least citizens do) online access to information, discussions and to decision makers that advance traditional democratic principles and good government practices.
Residents ultimately will determine the success of these public policy networks. It is as much a cultural challenge as it is a technology one. That will mean subscribing to some form of participation order that blends new technology with traditional practices. Participation should be enabled to allow for anonymity and attribution of participants. But it should not be comingled or combined. Just as traditional practices of democracy separate a public demonstration from a public comment proceeding, so, too should the online equivalents be allowed, even enabled, but treated in and as different venues. Positive and informative contributions (qualitative or quantitative) can come from either, but the practice should be separate.
This outline sets up a scenario for further discussion and debate and proposes key “players,” procedures and variables that should be included as part of that conversation and for a successful solution.