Lauren Collins’s New Yorker article on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s agenda of civic engagement contains a number of real gems, most of them as sobering as they are entertaining. I had to laugh out loud at some of the tweets she reports from an event billed as a “listening tour” in the format of unconference organized by the Big Society Network. “This is like speed-dating crossed with a slave auction in hell,” said one. Ouch.
The Big Society is Cameron’s notion that citizens can do a better job of solving social and civic problems than government, and in fact will likely be the only force that can do it as the budget deficit in Britain cripples the state. Collins describes Cameron’s vision as “a garden-fence government, in which little platoons of concerned citizens, unhindered by senseless regulations and sclerotic bureaucracies, band together to conceive and execute the governance of their own communities.” That I find a lot to like in that idea is probably unsurprising, given how much these ideas have in common with Tim O’Reilly’s belief in “government as a platform” and the ways that platform can transfer some of its power to act to citizens. But Collins spots within the movement a troubling sense of withdrawal and unfounded optimism. She suggests that Big Society leaders appear to be trying to relieve themselves of almost all responsibility to actually govern, while hoping citizens will pick up the pieces; it is an abandonment, not an empowerment.
Cameron’s Minister for the Cabinet, Francis Maud, is quoted at the end of the article saying, “You have to accept that there will be things that go wrong that you can’t do anything about because we’re saying we’re not responsible for that anymore. You are.” That’s why another of the tweets from the “listening tour” said “A lot of cynicism + Enhanced volunteering in the midst of cuts=service on the cheap?” And in light of that cynicism, Collins asks an important question about this DIO (do-it-ourselves) utopia we seem to desire on both sides of the pond: What if, in transferring power down to the local level, it’s not wanted there? What if, as she puts it, the Big Society is “a political fruitcake?”
This question reminded me of a story O’Reilly once used in a speech to illustrate the spirit of DIO. A community in Hawaii found itself in severe economic danger when a road to the nearby State Park was closed due to flood damage and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources estimated that the damage would cost $4 million and almost a year to fix. In the meantime, the businesses that relied on tourists visiting the park would have long since shuttered, so the community got together, rented some equipment, and fixed the road themselves in eight days.
I love this story, and I suspect Cameron’s Big Society boosters would as well, but to me, these actions are a symptom, not a cure. They highlight ways in which the bureaucracy has become too slow and expensive. Stories like these should shame the caretakers of that bureaucracy, (which includes voters and taxpayers as well as state officials) into corrective action, not persuade them that they are off the hook. These Kauai residents not only have to pay taxes, but now also have to pitch in for backhoes and steamrollers to fix property that belongs to the state (and without the safeguards like engineering assessments that government is supposed to ensure.) This seems both unfair and unsustainable. While this story is a great example of civic spirit, pulling together, and triumph, it’s only an effective model if government learns from it and adapts.
One of the key ideas of government as a platform is not that government abdicates responsibility to citizens or the private sector, but that it makes strategic decisions and investments that allow individuals and companies to work with government more effectively to solve common problems.
For example, when the TriMet transportation agency in Portland worked with Google to launch the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), a standardized way for cities to publish their transit schedules in a way that can be used by Google Maps or various iPhone apps, they were building technology that would allow the private sector to deliver new value to citizens. This increases access to government services (transit schedules) without increasing the cost of government. Open data initiatives and standards such as GTFS and the Open 311 API have turned public assets into opportunities to make something creative, productive, and possibly profitable.
The incentives of those who create something on this platform are varied. In many cases, citizens create something for their own use and then share it. I’m thinking of Max Ogden in Portland, who wanted to be able to find the various food carts and trucks in his hometown, so he wrote an iPhone app to track them. In other cases, there’s a strong profit motive, as real companies can be built that take advantage of public data using both established and emergent business models.
In a conversation this morning with Stephen Goldsmith, the Deputy Mayor of New York City, he remarked that his goal is to engage citizens in a process of co-creation of government services. That’s exactly right. Government’s job is to understand what it will take to make a better society, to identify critical points where government can provide leverage and opportunity, and then to partner with citizens and private companies to take advantage of those opportunities. Citizens should see participation as an opportunity, not an obligation.
When new opportunities for participation emerge, some people will ignore them, but others will flock to them. The New Yorker article notes: “A recent poll found that, while more than eighty per cent of Britons say that they support ‘more community involvement,’ only around a quarter say that they care to get involved.” It’s easy to take a comment like this as a damning indictment of the Big Society and similar ideas for citizen participation, until you remember that even in the most successful and transformative examples of internet participation, from Wikipedia to blogging, to Twitter and Facebook, many more people consume the resulting content than participate in producing it.
Take media: self-publishing became incredibly easy, and so people did it, and suddenly this institution known as The Media had a whole lot of competition, and the public had a whole lot more access to information, opinion, and content. Now, the line between the mainstream media and the long tail of media is pretty blurry; newspapers blog and bloggers serve ads. This healthy middle space creates an enormous amount of value. No one made it happen, or even really promoted a vision of it. It happened naturally, because the tools emerged and these tools enabled what people already wanted to do.
The beauty of the government as a platform model is that it doesn’t assume civic participation, it encourages it subtly by aligning with existing motivations in its citizens, so that anyone — ranging from the fixers in Hawaii to the cynics in Britain — would be willing to get involved.
I don’t know if it’s possible to engineer the same trick in government, but I do know that there’s a fine line between empowering citizens to take responsibility for their communities and telling them that their government is getting out of that line of work. We’d better be careful we don’t send the wrong message, and that when we’re building tools for citizen engagement, we do it in the way that taps existing motivations. Otherwise, we think we’ll be calling society together for a reboot, but it’ll feel like “speed-dating crossed with a slave auction in hell.” Ouch again.
Photo credit: conservativeparty on flickr