From theories and discussions of public interest and value, it is fairly clear that public participation well as fostering the public inputs and perception process is one of the most challenging parts of decision making in public organizations; thereby acting on the ‘democracy’ we have. Governments – as public managers of organizations, local and state and federal, always face this problem, and challenged to figure out what the constituents want, what exactly they think of on issues affecting them and how they (managers) can integrate these public opinions in the decision making process. By no means, government should keep the perception that is it working its own agenda as a entity by its own, and removed from the citizens. Governments needs to work on its ways that it provides information to public, involve public in decision making – thus fostering the ‘democracy’ and ‘informed voters’.
What is public participation
Public participation is the process by which public concerns, needs and values are incorporated into governmental decision making (Creighton 2005). His elements of public participation are –
Applies to administrative decisions
It is not just about providing information, it is about interaction and involvement in decision making
It is an organized process, not an accidental or coincidental process
Participants can make impact and influence decisions
Creighton demonstrated the participation continuum as:
Inform the public -> Listen to the public -> Engage in problem solving -> Develop agreement.
The steps are as follows:
Public Information and Relations: These are one way information/communication sessions to the public. These are to convey complete and objective information to base judgments and preparation of decision making.
Procedural Public Participation: Either by public hearing or increased access to information to the public, public organizations initiate the mechanism of public participation.
Consultation and Collaborative Problem Solving: Also known as consensus seeking (Creighton 1992), this is a degree of power sharing by the agencies and public organizations with the public, where public has the chance to influence (through meetings or direct involvements) in the decision making (though ultimate authority rests on the agency). In this case, public influence may have helped to determine program criteria or decisions.
Consensus Building: Consensus building (different from consensus seeking) is the process of seeking unanimous consensus (Susskind 1999). It includes the effort by public organization to gain support from all stakeholders.
According to Creighton, there are three stages in developing a public participation plan:
French and Bayley (2011) suggested a hierarchy of participation process design:
Different Forms of Citizen Participation
The image of citizens as voters at the input-side and subjects at the output-side of the political system has increasingly been challenged by the view that citizens have a legitimate right to have a say in governance processes that affect them and that this right should be institutionally guaranteed (Smith, 2005). Public participation is also seen as a crucial means to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of public governance by tapping into the experiences, demands, and ideas of different user groups (Warren 2009). The participatory role offered to citizens participating in governance is more explicit, and further promotes the view of citizens as active partakers in the provision of public governance, and democracy.
Besides the civic duty to vote, citizens influence the governance through ‘consumer choice’, the demand driven aggregation, exit and voice outcomes (Hirschman 1970). Individual citizens are also participative as elite activists (Bang & Sorensen 1998) who deliver voluntary labor and thus take on the role as ‘co producers’ of public governance. Anderson (2008) noted individuals become partners and consumers in governance when they agree to change their behaviors in returns for specific benefits such as employment and rehabilitation programs. Governance networks also involve citizens in the formulation of policy objectives and decision making (Fung 2004).
Jessop (2002), Koppenjan and Klijin (2004), Provan and Milward (2001) provided the assessment and effectiveness of network-based government to build capacity of cooperation based solutions. The six criteria for effective public-private partnership based governance are –
Clear and well-informed understanding of the policy problems and opportunities at hand.
Generate innovative, proactive, and feasible policy options matching the perception of the problems and challenges facing the parties.
Joint policy decisions going beyond the least common denominator while avoiding excessive costs and unwarranted cost shifting.
Smooth policy implementation based on continuous coordination and a high degree of legitimacy and responsibility.
Flexible adjustment of policy solutions and public services derived from policy feedback and conditions, demands, and preferences.
Create favorable conditions for future cooperation through cognitive, strategic, and institutional learning.
The Public Interest and Participative Governance – Beyond “Networks”
Let’s face it, fostering a public dialogue, infer their values and perception are probably the most intricate task of public managers. How many empty town-hall meetings do we see? How many of the public meetings fail to actually produce a feasible solution? A public manager’s ultimate vision is to engage and facilitate local communities in order to create and sustain public dialogue and recognize the needs and values of the stakeholders – because in democracy, constituents are the ultimate stakeholders. By doing so (effective public involvement), the strong public organizations can facilitate the formation of the cornerstone of a vibrant, exemplary and effective regional democracy which can build up to the national level (Denhardt et al 2008, Hill 2007).
If we try to figure out why town hall meetings fail to provide reasonable amount of public dialogue, the long list includes prohibitive cost for adequate information sessions or advertizing, limited inputs from stakeholders, comprehension or problem differences -both by officials and citizens, inadequate racial or demographic diversity, rent-seeking through lobbying or incentives (only people will show up with most at stake), or the problem may even get lost in translation (citizens may not comprehend the problem, or not understand the statutory limitations).
When the Parks and Recreation department of Tallahassee wanted to know if they should let businesses to put advertisement banners in trails, instead of (or at least side by side) having public hearings, where we all know very few people attended and of those who attend are the ones with most to lose or gain; the city council could arrange online meetings so younger citizens could have attend, and also include those citizens who did not attend due to time or location constraints could have attended and had their voices heard.
An interactive government could incorporate the contracting transparency, what-if modeling, collaboration, and visualization of upcoming and ongoing public projects – thereby presenting the citizens how their tax dollars are being used, or what is driving the decision process (Canova 2007). As Fisher and Brown (2009) mentioned – building enduring relationship is done by ‘getting together’ – from both sides – government and public – through initiating, negotiating, and sustaining enduring relationships.
Open Source Democracy and e-governance
Interactive and e-delivery of services based democracy – best termed “Open Source Democracy”- through online interaction – everyone’s voice has an opportunity to be heard, people of different backgrounds and views can routinely work together to solve public problems and find the most effective solution among many, elected officials have many opportunities to hear from and respond to everyday people, people have ways not only to inform government officials as they create and carry out public policy, but also encouraged to work with public officers to solve public problems. As public managers, we are to involve everyone, the whole community – the constituent base in the dialogue and deliberation (Denhardt et al 2008). This way, we can open ourselves to embrace diversity – by reaching out to all kinds of people. Through the process, we (the public managers) can share knowledge, resources, power, and involve the constituents in decision making. Open source democracy is to facilitate public talk that builds understanding and explores a range of solutions. Here the public office connects deliberative dialogue to social, political, and policy change actions. I will explore one particular avenue to find the solution of encouraging the public participation and involvement- through Gamification.
Digital learning and interaction should be a much welcomed addition to the burgeoning field of open and participatory governance (Tapscott et al 1998). Public organization emphasize on issues that matter to a wide range of stakeholders – from policy makers to citizens of all sorts. Democracy calls for considerations beyond departmental, institutional, and professional silos in order to ensure the advancement of the ‘participative and informed citizens’ (Denhardt et al 2008). Through the interactive actions on issues, could be an effective tool in today’s public organization’s repertoire.
This idea of open source governance, which comprises of online interactions, interactive processes and social media such as twitter, facebook, discussion forums as well as games to encourage public participation, is around for quite some time. The idea of this kind of governance is to better serve the citizens through transparency, accessibility, participation, efficiency, fostering creativity and involvement in decision making.
President Obama’s white house twitter chat sessions, Google Plus hangouts for example were definitely quite helpful for citizens to pose their personal question about the proposed healthcare or tax cuts or OMBs fiscal year budget. Through change.org, the president’s office is also quite publicly accessible. Through the social media, websites and interactive meetings, almost all public organizations can become much more ‘public’ than just through something like a public information office.
A Recent Case – Let’s Fix the Budget – How We Can Involve Citizens in Decision Making
One particular piece that caught my eye is The New York Times’ Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/13/weekinreview/deficits-graphic.html), and seems how effective kind of a ‘game’ this really can be for the president to put out and advertize something similar to this – this also can work for the looming ‘fiscal cliff’.
There, the American public is invited to play the scenario, offer their personal inputs in resolving the ‘budget problem’ (as well as actually understand it and comprehend the ‘dearth’). As congress and the executive branch continue their battle concerning the fiscal cliff, the deficit puzzle allows the citizens to decide what domestic programs and foreign aid dollars should continue to be spent on while showing the savings per year in short (2015) and long (2030) term.
Also, in the book Super Crunchers by Ian Ayers (2007), he demonstrated how mass (public) participation in budgeting process can help with understanding and estimating the feedback effects from a project – or the entire budget.
What Can We Learn From This – Let’s Fix the Budget
Viewers are able to vote in on subjects from earmarks to farm subsidies, picking how large and how much the federal workforce should be paid – consequently role-playing themselves to a balanced (or not) budget as a policy-maker, revealing their micro level preferences which can be built up to show US regional and national preferences – a major form of participative and informed democracy.
That particular interactive piece gives the citizens chance to reveal their preferences on entitlement reform – should tort reform be part of saving Medicare? Should the federal government raise social security eligibility ages? Does are fiscal crisis justify means testing to determine who will receive benefits? Is automatic sequestration a supported provision, or if is it even needed? How are our views regarding taxation? Do we support President’s current plan or do we support of going back to the Clinton-era rates? That also asks for citizen’s preferences for estate tax and capital gains rate changes. We can play the puzzle, and see if the deficit lowers as we tackle each of these critical issues.
Just by analyzing the results of that project, we can see citizens are pro- current tax code (thus extending the Bush era cuts), size reduction for military, reducing social security benefits to the wealthy or even as drastic as cutting entire federal overseeing department such as Education. Clearly, the exercise allows creative solutions to the problem and shows American citizen might be open to tough and unpopular choices which leaders might be afraid of taking.
All these are definitely some issues lawmakers should be aware of their constituents’ preferences. Though the results are certainly not scientific, it would let Senator Rubio and Senator Nelson to make a bit more informed choices for their constituents in the session.
With the parties locking horns with their agenda on the so called ‘fiscal cliff’, the future does not seem too bright. Though it is true the people elected their representatives, but the voting was on a full list of manifest – not just on individual issues. This way of governance, the citizens can also participate on individual issues. The virtual role playing exercises presented to the citizens can help the policy makers understand their constituents’ preference pattern on issues – on how to efficiently use the limited resource available at their disposal. The gamification of issues through role playing and simulation based games will to some degree help the policymakers to learn of the public interest and apprehend the public view on concerning situations.
Let’s Take It a Step Further – Online Government and Public Participation
With the emergence of AmericaSpeaks or online town hall – this idea of public participation through interactive means in governance does not seem very farfetched. Services and agencies like Amtrak (or regional transport agencies like NYC MTA, Atlanta’s MARTA, StarMetro) designing and taking cue from customized games similar to Railroad Tycoon or Transport Tycoon (MicroPose Games), or the city governments designing games like the SimCity (Electronic Arts) and present to the citizens through their websites and take suggestions through those games. Cities and states can also start and promote health campaigns through activity applications like Fitocracy or EA Active (Electronic Arts) challenges, to Education campaigns like Khan Academy’s Energy points, or go as creative as Minecraft games (Mojang) to design parks or new development zones. All these to promote public participation, information, transparency while minimizing the costs of such.
Facebook is doing Site Governance vote, or Microsoft’s internal bug challenges to discover software bugs before release- the government can implement something of that sort, and include the people in the decision making process. The Florida Legislature (especially the House) had tried the redistricting exercise where through myDistrictBuilder, the legislature let the citizens draw redistricting maps according to regulations and take suggestions from the citizens directly. We probably do not expect government to go all-in as in online presidential voting or actions of that sorts (for the time being), but we can definitely start small and build up from there. This idea also goes hand in hand with the paperwork reduction act implemented by the OMB. The new York city hack challenge, Montgomery County – MD’s open governance initiative, DNC’s google plus meetup initiative – all of these are definitely some clear examples of ‘Open Source Democracy’ – and the public organizations throughout the nation should embrace the vision.
As Bayley and French (2011) said – (the) case has been made; the evidence is there; we now need to move on and take a more professional engineering approach to the design of participation processes so that they are as efficient and effective as possible: fit for purpose.
E-service delivery in governance definitely works best in situations where the players (here – citizens) believe the end-goal is important but lacks the motivation to act and perform, that is where public meetings or information sessions comes short due to lack of the intrinsic rewards which the interactive process can attempt to minimize. Through the interactive governance process “Open Source Governance”, the organizations can encourage youth participation, foster creative solutions, educate and involve citizens in the decision making process while minimizing the costs of those actions. This way, the government can strengthen the ‘demo’ in ‘democracy’.