I’ve been thinking about how we might begin to think about relationship model versus transaction model when it comes to digitally augmented government. In most configuations of e-government there is a choice between open dialog and collective decision making. This leaves two options: unstructured talk and structured input. It would seem that there is something in between. Consider something like YouTube as a platform for relationships. If the real value in video sharing is building personal and / or intellectual connections, then the platform plays the role not of content provider, but arbiter of relationships. Shouldn’t the government characterize its role similarly? Shouldn’t the government be tasked with the responsibility of providing the framework for relationships, person to person, person to group, group to group, person to institution, etc.? And not just the framework for individual transactions, but a framework that transforms transactions into a relationship investment. For instance, one doesn’t post to YouTube simply to add to a database of videos. The single transaction is a building block on which relationships can be built. In other words, engagement doesn’t end with the transaction, that’s where it begins.
The most prominent examples in the States include Minnesota e-democracy or iBrattelboro, or even some of the attempts by various states, most notably Virginia, to provide web access to senate hearings. These are all premised on the notion that the transaction itself is the act of participation (civic engagement measured by voter turnout, for instance). Outside of the United States, there are some more interesting examples like Digital Birmingham, which has a complex big picture idea of digital democracy, and a bunch of examples in Sweden where the public is invited in to design and or participate. Interestingly, a project in Stockholm to invite the public into the design of a new airport forced the government to pull the plug on the project because they couldn’t control the overwhelming resistance that built up against it. But, in these participatory processes, or as one person put it, design by committee situations, problems arise when participation is limited to individual input. The role of government is obfuscated by very specific features of the technology.
What is promising about the model of digital government as relationship platform is the possibility of turning priorities away from civic management and towards civic engagement. Sure, efficiency and economy are important, but I think there are interesting opportunities to expand the role of government to include these more nuanced aspects of relationships. This is what requires a change in culture. Can digital media change the attitude that government is in place only to control or manage? Can it instead be in place to foster opportunities for connections?
I wonder if this proposition is too heavily steeped in neoliberal discourse, or if its just the opposite? Perhaps it succeeds in taking the emphasis away from the individual and away from established institutions by placing it on this yet-to-be-defined third space?