It is my job to have my ear to the pulse of the civic innovation world, and as I have listened this week a common cry has rung out across civic media, civic technology and civic innovation groups: institutions are giving way to self-organizing networks and power is up for grabs.
People are networking together to fulfill their needs and desires, to create the lives they want to live. Most frequently these networks develop without government involvement because government is not engaging with citizens in the ways they need or desire.
Kate Krontiris, speaking at the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum, cited that 48.9% of Americans are “interested bystanders”. They are informed, but not vocal or active in civic issues. (This is in terms of voting or other community civic engagement — i.e. volunteering, signing petitions, reporting public problems, organizing service events, etc.)
Many claim disinterest as the reason for this generation’s lack of civic engagement, but to me these numbers show the opposite. In context of technological developments and self-organizing networks, this disconnect between interest and engagement indicates that the methods of engagement have become irrelevant. Government as we know it was not crafted to engage citizens who live in an instant world, whose community is created online, and who have power to play with previously incomprehensible amounts of information and technology. Citizens don’t have to wait for institutions anymore; they are making their own networks to fulfill community needs.
What does this mean for government? How is government going to factor in these new conditions — not only technology, but how people, citizens are connecting and creating with technology? Are traditional engagement strategies and measures relevant in this new situation? As community engagement is defined on an increasingly personal level, how will a removed government engage citizens?
There are a lot of questions, and I don’t know the answers. No one does. This is new territory for the veterans of government, technology and innovation worlds alike. But right now many institutions, particularly in government, are burying their head in the sand and remaining static.
What I do know is that avoidance will result in severe system tension and obsolescence. We collectively need to be thinking about and working with these seismic shifts instead of avoiding them and hoping they go away. These developments are not going away; the landscape has forever changed.
As government maintains its current model of citizen engagement, the public is moving on, exploring new possibilities. The longer the changes are avoided, the larger the gap between government and active citizen engagement becomes. Over time the issue will only become more intractable and aggravated; waiting will not work.
Government leaders need to find courage to take an offensive position. At the Business Innovation Factory we daily discuss the need to be active in our experimentation with new models of government engagement in order to stay abreast with the shifting tide.
In business model innovation we look at market-making versus share-taking approaches to market engagement. Market-making is characterized by the re-configuration of resources to create new opportunities and value for users. Share-taking entails a zero sum game where groups pit themselves against each other for perceived limited resources, adding no new value to the market.
Self-organizing citizens have become the new competition for government. The question is whether government will hold itself accountable and create a relevant system adding value with citizens or try to compete with and take from the people it is meant to assist.
Either institutions will discover how to work with these developments or they will stubbornly hold ground and not only hinder the experience of their current citizens, but harm the potential of future generations. Becoming irrelevant is a dangerous thing for culturally-ingrained institutions because when they die, they don’t go away. They will become the albatross around the necks of the individuals they were created to serve.
Our world has changed; government needs to.