It's easy enough to say 'participation isn't working' - but what comes next? I think we need more than an upgrade in the ways that public bodies and nonprofits relate to citizens and service users - we need a new version as well as a new vision. Let's call it Engagement 2.0, as shorthand for participation + openness + Web 2.0.
I've got a strong hunch, but not the detail, so instead of trying to be too analytical I thought I'd tie together something of the things I've been writing, and heard elsewhere, and see if that starts some conversations.
Here's my first attempt.
If you talk to people in the participation business they will agree privately - and sometimes publicly - that much of the time what they do isn't getting results. The language doesn't work, and nor does the action. We are dancing while standing still. People are fed up because after all the surveys, workshops and forums, the agencies who start participation processes don't deliver. They go through the motions, using all the right tools, but then ignore the results or make excuses. The problem is that participation is a culture not a tick box - and many public bodies still believe they know best. We need instead a culture of interaction.
Unfortunately there's now a big participation industry with a vested interest in carrying on as usual. Ministers and councillors want to preach participation ... but still keep tight control over their programmes. Officials generally won't rock the boat. Many of the community and voluntary organisations who might have made a fuss in the past don't want to jeopardise their grants or the chance of bidding for service contracts. Consultants and other practitioners may be frustrated, but it is difficult to argue that the problem probably lies with your client rather than an allegedly apathetic public ... if you want to get paid. I know, I've been there.
The only people likely to make a difference are the service users and participants themselves. But while there are plenty of toolkits for professionals, it's difficult to find anything for the punters.
At the same time, if you look at what's happening in the commercial world, marketers and some big corporations recognise that that the best way to improve their products is to start up continuing conversations with their customers. Microsoft is encouraging employees to blog about their work. As I wrote earlier, the book Communities Dominate Brands, by Tomi T. Ahonen and Alan Moore, argues that now many consumers are online they are forming their own communities of interest where discussion take places on products and services offered by brands. If something is wrong, word spreads fast. The Cluetrain Manifesto promoted markets as conversations six years back; these days I find Johnnie Moore's blog the best place to keep in touch with new thinking.
Technology is also bringing change in civil society. People are starting to use their digital cameras to show up failures in public services - here's a small example from Warsaw. The National Computing Centre is supporting groups who want to make campaign videos. The BBC offers a campaigning platform online. Community groups in Teesside are showing how to mix new digital media with older methods of engagement.
There are some great examples of citizens organising for change, here in London, and elsewhere. I think that they could make even more of a difference if they added some of the tools of campaigning consumers. If Communities Dominate Brands, they can start to make a dent in Government too.
What's that you say? E-democracy will brings some changes? I'm not so sure on the current model. Government has spent £4 million on pilots, but it is mostly top down. There are two pilot community forums, and Bristol council is developing a community campaigning pack, but I suspect a lot of e-democracy is just going to be old-style participation online, without much impact on the cultural and organisation problems that need to be challenged.
We need more networky organisations, storytelling instead of surveys, more ground-up e-democracy creating civic spaces, and events with more conversations and less presentations.
So where can we look for new models, new methods - and new attitudes to match? I'm not suggesting technology will fix things, even in the hands of consumer-citizens ... but the current buzz around what's known as Web 2.0 may offer some insights, if mixed with thinking around "openness".
What is Web 2.0? Lee Bryant has just done a round-up ... but concedes the idea is difficult to pin down. The general feeling reflected elsewhere is that is a bit woolly and techie as a term, and at the moment broadly referring to any new and interesting stuff that's happening online. However, I think it does have a lot of relevance to new thinking about engagement. Here's why.
Most people these days are familiar with one-to-one email and go-to web sites. Many will know about portals that offer lots of different services, and forums where people can discuss issues online. Chances are that if you mention ebay for buying and selling, Amazon for books and other goods, Google for searching the Net, people will know what you are talking about. That sort of life online is now part of life.
Blogs are less well known, although the BBC recently reported that people are using them for consumer information, so word is spreading.
What's less well known - and difficult to explain - is the way that new web tools have the potential for shifting the way that knowledge is organised from top-down to bottom-up. I first began to understand this after hearing a presentation by Lee Bryant a while back, when he was talking about big internal knowledge management systems often failing. Instead of trying to get people to contribute to one place, why not enable them to create their own places and then join them up. The can be done by people producing blog items instead of email, adding tags to label the content, and then being able to select what they want to read from others by filtering using the tags. Instead of going to portals, you can create you own mini-portal on your desktop, and republish the mix-and-match content that you find. Instead of just joining static forums created by other people, you can develop your own groups and more fluid networks online. And it can be done without much of the spam and general junk that is making email so difficult. The technology to do this, and lots more, is moving very fast, and I'm collecting items over on another blog.
While the new tools are essential, what's just as important is the movement to promote more knowledge sharing through different types of copyright licenses and other methods that build on the ethos of the open source software movement. The best-known example of people collaborating online to produce a coherent body of knowledge is Wikipedia. Earlier this year the think tank Demos published a very readable pamphlet called Wide Open, which suggested how the approach could be applied in three areas: Open knowledge, Open team working, and Open conversations. The say that 'open' projects share these characteristics:
• vetting of participants only after they've got involved
• low cost and ease of engagement
• a legal structure and enforcement mechanism
• common standards
• peer review and feedback loops
• a shared conception of goals
• incrementalist - small players can still make useful
• powerful non-monetary incentives.
I think these characteristics give some clues as to what what might be needed for Engagement 2.0. Participation version 1.x can be a bit like the old top-down ways of organising knowledge: "you can join in, but only on the terms that we set. If if we don't deliver what you want, I'm afraid there's not much you can do about it." Top-table is in charge of the meeting. Raise your hand to speak. If you don't like what we publish, send up a letter ... but it may not be published. Of course you can produce your own newsletter, but you'll never have the resources to produce many or get it distributed." I know there are terrific examples of good participation practice... but even the word implies that people are being invited to join someone else's thing, and that they will retain control.
The Web, linked with a new approach to events and collaboration, is starting to change that - and particularly the new tools and ethos of what's being called Web 2.0.
I'm running out of energy on this narrative, and if I add more just now I'll just confuse things. I hope there are enough threads in there to start some conversations. I think that's one of the advantages of Web 2.0, Engagement 2.0 ... you don't have to try to be right, just be useful.