A new third generation of citizen engagement (3GE) is emerging as the exemplar of good practice
In this post I explore the history of participation and engagement and argue that a new third generation of citizen engagement (3GE) is emerging as the exemplar of good practice. Practice which should form the basis of the New Politics and Big Society.
A New Decade
At the start of a new decade, as it has been at the start of the new millennium, our democracies are seen to be left wanting. Here in the UK we have a new government, promising to deliver change, a ‘new politics’ and a big society. We wait to see what that promise holds, but it is clear that a groundswell of support exists to change what we have had into something we want.
At the turn of the millennium the concern was of a rapid disintegration of the traditional forms of civil society which had until then held together our politics and society. Be it the globally plummeting membership of political parties and electoral turnout, or the collapse of traditional membership organisations. In this new environment the link between us and our leaders became unclear and questions were asked of any government ignoring the rising tide of apathy and dis-interest.
These concerns, many of them as old as democracy itself, did not go unheeded. The last decade or so has seen an extraordinary global movement experimenting and reflecting on how to rejuvenate our politics and reconfigure it to meet the challenges we now face. Binded by the internet, there is now a global community which develops, shares and adapts new processes. From e-petitions to participatory budgeting, citizen summits to hyperlocal social networks, new technology, new social trends and new challenges are forging new relationships between citizens and state.
This is not a defined sector or movement as such, it is people rising to the challenge. The last decade has been especially rich in improving our understanding of the problem, if not the solution. We now better understand power and empowerment. We know that; build it, and not everyone will come. Government is littered with examples of web 2.0 projects that didn’t capture peoples’ imagination and community meetings where no one turned up. We now better understand the intense everyday time pressures that most people face, and how we as democratic pioneers must compete in the fierce market for time, making offers every bit as engaging as the latest movie, video game or magazine article. Many find politics boring and that is a challenge, but it is better to rise to that challenge than ignore it; or worse frame society as ‘apathetic’.
Third Generation Engagement
On that basis the next incarnation of democratic re-engineering must be characterised by interaction, innovation and responsiveness. We are now entering a phase we call Third Generation Engagement (3GE). Where historically, governments have sought to be reactive or pro-active in ‘offering’ engagement, it is now being delivered on a more level playing field. Now citizens are able to e-petition when they want (and potentially for Parliament to debate the proposal), and mobilise through their social networks for what they care about. The idea that engagement is choreographed through a government communications department no longer holds.
This should not be seen as a loss of control by government. The hoards are not about to storm the barricades; at least not often. Perhaps the greatest shift over the past decade has been government culture. Walk into almost any Town Hall or Primary Care Trust and the difference to 15 years ago is stark. What were once inhuman waiting rooms (these still exist), have been transformed into hives of community activity.
That is not to say it is perfect, far from it. Too often the refurbished office lobbies are little more than a veneer of engagement over an old-style autocratic regime. Participation remains fragmented, infected by a focus group mind-set, designed to inform officials but not to empower individuals. At its worse this can channel valuable civic energy down consultation cul-de-sacs where it would be better spent through traditional campaigning.
But we are where we are, and democratic development is never a finished project. What is critical now is that we embrace the uncertainty of the communications revolution within which we now sit. We do not know which methods will emerge, or if our current tools will last. But we are able to identify the social and environmental challenges we face and set a course to solving them.