A US perspective on e-democracy – views from across the pond

Back in November last year we worked on a project with the National Academy of Administration (NAPA) aimed at creating a debate and gathering ideas around the issue of “Health IT” – called the National Dialogue on Health IT. The project itself was relatively low-key given it was run in the final weeks of the Presidential elections and most people in government had bigger things on their minds.

Having said that, the idea of the National Dialogue on Health IT was to test a new model of participative policy-making and has since proved an incredibly important pilot project. As weeks after running the project, the mode of US governance changed with Obama’s victory and his declaration that his administration would wholly embrace the notion of “open and transparent governance“.

On the back of this new appetite for participative democracy, our team have been doing an increasing amount of work in Washington, working with NAPA to develop up new models of participating in policy-making online.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the approaches we run in the US compared to the UK is a focus on “open and transparent dialogue”. That’s not to say the work we do with UK government’s isn’t supporting open and transparent governance, however it’s the extent to which US civil servants are happy to embrace the notion of collaboration and crowd-sourcing in particular.

To give a sense of these differences in culture between the UK and US, here are a couple of anecdotes:

– Dialogue not consultation: the government organisations we work with in the US talk of “having a dialogue” not “running a consultation”. Although both ultimately lead to the same outcome and might involve the same (similar) activities, it’s the underlying approach towards the process that’s different. The idea of a “dialogue” is clearly a two-way process, however the idea of consultation implies more of a focus on listening, however not necessarily any further level of engagement and collaboration beyond that.

– Open ideas sharing not black-box results: following on from the notion of having a dialogue, the way in which the content of the process (i.e. the ideas / comments generated) is different too. Whereas most of the online consultations we run in the UK all comments provided by participants are sent into a “black box” (i.e. stored secretly and safely in a database), in the dialogues we run in the US the ideas / comments are shared open between all participants – inspiring further idea sharing and collaboration amongst the participants.

That’s not to say we’re not doing great work over here in the UK, however as a generalisation there is a sense that our Americans friends seem to have embraced the idea of collaboration in government quicker and deeper than in the UK. This is possibly a cultural thing, and the UK is definitely catching up. After all it was the US that brought us Twitter and Facebook – though of course the UK’s Tim Berners Lee trumps Biz Stone and Mark Zuckerburg any day of the week! Culturally we in the UK are great at getting the basics right, however when it comes to fully embracing innovation it always seems that we need a bit of a prod from our friends over the pond . . .

3 thoughts on “A US perspective on e-democracy – views from across the pond

  1. Interesting post and fascinating theme. I certainly think we should switch much more strongly towards open sharing. If you are interested in trying to push this agenda in Europe, you might want to take a look at http://eups20.wordpress.com/ and then get help draft a manifesto to encourage European politicians to give this agenda a real push!

  2. The EUPS project looks really interesting + definitely something we’d be keen to get involved with. Though changing how European behemoth governs may be more of a task than changing how US governance works . . .

  3. Chris,

    Very interesting post. I was recently in Washington for a conference on Strengthening US Democracy, which featured talks by leading lights in the Obama administration, including Beth Noveck. I was struck by the same differences that you’ve highlighted here; the US government does seem more committed to two way dialogue than the UK government. However the recent spate of adversarial town hall meetings across the country might temper that enthusiasm before long. I’ve written a blog on my musings: http://www.involve.org.uk/the-us-experience-of-engagement/.

    Keep up the good work!

    Edward

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