Athens on the Web, Revisited

The Obama Administration continues to exert valiant efforts to encourage public participation in policy debates.  From one point of view, the problem is that they are succeeding.

The Citizen’s Briefing Book, the Administration’s first effort at giving voice to a multitude of opinions, undertaken within the first couple of months of the President’s first term, became infamous for the priorities established by the users of their open feedback system.  The number one issue was not war, economic collapse, famine, or rising tides, but legalization of marijuana (based on recent election results, it seems someone may have been listening) and calls for proof of the President’s citizenship.

Anand Giridharadas, writing in The New York Times, contrasted the passing age when “ we would elect people to govern us and sporadically renew or revoke their contracts” with the new age of open electronic communication where governance could include “all of us, all the time.”  The first results were “embarrassing – not so much to the administration as to us.”  [‘Athens’ on the Net, NYT, September 13, 2009]

In the interim, the Administration has refined the public input process, setting up a requirement for petitions to be offered, with the further requirement that the petitions garner a sufficient number of endorsements online (currently 25,000 endorsers) before an Administration official responds online.  The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all about the current state of citizen input:  “The People Speak:  Give Us Twinkies and Death Stars.”  A petition to have the President compromise with Congress and avoid the “fiscal cliff” so “young people can have bright futures” currently has fewer than 650 endorsers.  [David Nakamura, The Washington Post, December 10, 2012, p. 1]

At one time the debate in the world of public participation may have been about what technology to use and how to use it to open up public dialogue, but the explosion of free or cheap online technology has made the “how do we do it?” question, in a technical sense, much easier to answer.  Having easy to access and easy to use technology creates channels, but largely the information flowing through those channels demonstrates that there are a pretty fair percentage of chuckleheads out there among our fellow citizens.

Does ease of access to the public dialogue mean that we get a more robust debate over important issues?  Or does making it as easy to weigh in on policy discussions as it is to Tweet about how long it took for the barista to make a latte create a diluting effect?  The question for those who engage in facilitation and manage public dialogue online now has to be how to frame and manage public policy issues to focus the public at large in a constructive way.  If we don’t figure it out, policy makers will continue to be occupied with petitions to bail out the Twinkie.