Participation Problems

SMART Method of Public Policy is addressing two major citizen engagement problems: 

1. The lack of participation of every-day citizens and experts in solving community problems at local, national and international levels. 
2. The flows of the citizen engagement tools that people and organizations use nowadays. 

Researches show that people don’t participate in solving community problems mainly due to “lower socioeconomic status, lack of impact of personal participation compared to collective participation, limited time and money, lack of information and knowledge about issues, and lack of confidence in their ability to be effective” (Brian E. Adams, Citizen Lobbyists. Local efforts to influence public policy). SMART Method of Public Policy’s theory for social change focuses around the individuals, who feel they need to take action and fix what is wrong in the community, but they are limited due to one or more of the reasons mentioned above. 

As scholars argue that governments alone cannot solve pressing social problems, SMART Method of Public Policy provides the resources that every-day people need, to bring their knowledge to the table. The problems of local, national or international communities are opportunities for SMART Method. 

There are many attempts to facilitate people’s input in the policy-making process. They are mainly based on meetings where people have a direct contact with one another. However, they face two major problems. The first one is stated by Matt Leighninger: “the whole notion of citizen involvement centers on the needs and goals of the person doing the involving, not the citizen…ordinary people are only needed to play limited roles on certain occasions.” The other problem concerns the high costs associated with these participation programs. 

The authority under which participation programs come from, vary from governments to non-governmental organizations, community leaders and various interest groups. They usually tend to provide unbiased information to the people they engage. However, there is no accountability on the end result, which is usually a new policy proposal, a prioritization, or an opinion. 

The traditional participative democracy models sometimes use random sampling to choose their participants and usually try to be representative for various demographics. The number of participants may vary from thousands, to hundreds, or to 15-30 persons. The high-number models usually last for one day to one weekend, while the lower-number models tend to last from a couple of days to months. The costs associated with these projects are usually very high and can even reach millions of dollars in some cases, as organizers have to cover costs that include food, accommodation, travels, stipends and even prizes. 

The face-to-face or offline participative democracy models face important challenges that SMART Method of Public Policy tends to minimize:

  • Limited time and money – in order to participate in the programs, people need to dedicate first of all time. This is a big problem in attracting professionals, as they are usually very engaged in many projects. The projects are also expensive to organize.
  • Sometimes, group discussions tend to be polarized by one or few members. This requires facilitators to make sure that everybody’s opinion is being heard. However, they are not all the time effective and can be expensive.
  • Lack of knowledge about issues. This is more prevalent in the case of citizen engagement projects that last for short periods of time. The randomly selected people usually don’t have enough knowledge about the issues being discussed and there is not enough time to learn about them during the unfolding of the project. The longer the participative democracy process, the more time people have to think about issues and recommend better solutions.
  • Lack of ability to be effective. A couple of major factors influence this. One of them is the lack of accountability. Usually, you don’t have access to people’s data to ask them about the participative democracy process or about the policy they chose. Sometimes, even the project participants are not confident enough in their ability to influence policy. Usually, hardly any participative democracy initiative is generating a change of policy.

The greatest advantages of the traditional participation programs are the face-to-face discussions and the fact that they usually tend to be representative for targeted communities. These two advantages give them greater leverage to change policies, at least in theory.

Advantages of SMART Method of Public Policy

SMART Method of Public Policy allows people with various backgrounds to participate, from PhD professors to unskilled workers. All they need to have in common is the desire to solve community problems. Our method allows anybody to choose a public issue of importance to him/her, provides the strategy and the tools to address it, has widgets to mobilize other interested people to form a small policy working group and creates an opportunity to build awareness and influence policy.  

SMART Method of Public Policy is focusing mainly on the quality of the solutions that emerge out of its participation model. These should comply with the three criteria, inspired from Mark Moore’s Creating Public Value: be valuable, sustainable and feasible. 

Under SMART Method of Public Policy, nonprofits with activity and interest in participative democracy run the model and thus form the general authority, while the citizens who recommend solutions to community problems are held accountable for their ideas. This ensures that they receive the appropriate acknowledgement for their contribution, as well as prestige from the communities they contribute to. SMART Method of Public Policy is transforming the raw solution ideas into official policy papers, under the endorsement of a nonprofit in charge of the participation model. The scope of this is twofold. On one hand, this is a motivation for the citizens to recommend a valuable, sustainable and feasible solution. As Cass Sunstein mentions, people are motivated by “the desire to see their words in print, the value of self-expression and the apparently widespread desire to be helpful and constructive.” On the other hand, the information about the participants allows decision makers, mass-media and other targeted audiences to obtain more information from them, if they want to. 

The face-to-face participative democracy models usually focus on generating new policies, making an educated opinion, prioritizing various policies, and predicting people’s future views. These are usually complex issues that are supposed to help decision makers make better decisions or people vote new ballot initiatives. Issues vary greatly and include health care, new voting systems, the future of various communities, education reform, community planning, racism, emigration, land use, or other social problems. While SMART Method of Public Policy can deal with all these issues and others of importance to the network members, the end product is different. It consists in a policy paper that has specific layout characteristics. The content of the paper recommends a solution to a specific community problem or a well-defined policy or action plan from a pool of policies, while carefully analyzing other alternative solutions. 

Under SMART Method of Public Policy, any citizen is able to raise a problem of public concern that is of interest to her/him on a specially-created online policy-making platform called SolveNet. In the case of SMART Method, the citizen’s needs and goals are actually advantages, because they are the ones who push the policy-making process further. This way, ordinary people are not just some tools to play limited roles, but accountable citizens. 

The main advantages of SMART Method of Public Policy consist in its cost of use, flexibility in terms of time to offer a solution to a community problem and its educational approach. People use the Method at no cost. Because they can use the participation platform from basically anywhere they have an Internet connection, they can offer their input whenever they have time. More over, people can use additional time to do individual research on the issue they want to solve and thus make more informed solution proposals. One important side of our method of participation is its focus on the educational approach. The participation platform offers enough information to show citizens what the policy-making steps are and how to work online. This is aimed at offering basic policy skills to all participants, in order to make them more confident in their ability to be effective as a group. Also, the basic information provided, helps shorten the educational gap between more educated people and less educated ones. 

SMART Method of Public Policy is facing a series of difficulties that are specific to the Internet-based enterprises and to the participative democracy models in general. The first one is the absence of the face-to-face discussions. Some ways to combat this problem include using a friendly format of the citizen engagement platform that is also hosting the pictures of the participants. On the other hand, the online presence allows for collaborations between people from different regions or countries. They need to have in common the desire to solve problems in a specific community. 

Another important challenge for SMART Method of Public Policy is the leverage of the recommended solutions included in the policy papers to generate community action. The online approach means that the participation process is not representative for any community. That is why the focus of the participation platform is on the quality of the solutions that citizens are recommending. The policy papers that the managing partner organizations generate, follow a well designed template that is addressing all the options to analyze a recommendation. Another way to gain more leverage stands in the professions of the persons who participate. 

The effectiveness of the policy papers is another challenge. This is what SMART Method of Public Policy and the other participative democracy models have in common. In order to be effective and influence a change of policy once the solutions come out of the citizen engagement platform, the participants need to act creatively. They need to find the best ways to promote their solutions and, may be, lobby the right persons. This is also true for the other models. It could be argued that SMART Method of Public Policy and the other models of participative democracy have at least the same chances to influence a policy. 

Cass Sunstein argues in Infotopia that “deliberation on the Internet (through blogs) can produce errors and nonsense.” Blogs may indeed not be a good and encouraging environment to deliberate on pressing issues. However, SMART Method of Public Policy does not use blogs. The citizen engagement platform is new software that consists in many different scripts that guide the citizens throughout the policy-making process to transform their rough work into a policy paper. 

There is also the issue of Internet pranks. When referring to wikis, Sunstein mentions that “at first glance, the democratic quality of wikis seems to be a big problem. If anyone in the world can make changes, isn’t the text vulnerable to pranks and even destruction?” Cunningham and Leuf say that “experience shows that in fact little damage is done to wiki content even in the absence of security mechanisms.” Of course, SMART Method of Public Policy is not wiki. However, pranks might want to use it. Compared to wikis, SMART Method has security mechanisms. The proposed problems and solutions are moderated, so that licentious language is avoided. But the main reason that pranks might not actually try to inadequately use the method is also stated by Sunstein when referring to Wikipedia: “an essential part of the answer is that large numbers of knowledgeable people are willing to participate in creating it; status and motivation can play a significant role in wiki communities; participants compete for prestige by giving time, energy and creativity away.” Also, “innovation (creative solutions in the case of SMART Method of Public Policy) improves people’s reputations.” 

SMART Method of Public Policy is a combination of online and offline citizen engagement. It benefits from advantages specific to the online dialogue like little to no cost of use, flexibility of participants to give solutions to problems of public concern, educational approach, and interactivity among the participants. At the same time, SMART Method is coping with the disadvantages of offline engagement, like the lack of accountability of the end result of a participation endeavor, limited time and money of participants to offer input in pressing community problems, polarization of discussions, and lack of knowledge about issues. 

As the majority of work is done online, the policy-making process is pushed further using the authority of a legally established nonprofit organization. This way, the most feasible, valuable and sustainable solution proposals from citizens, are sent to the desks of elected and appointed officials. 

The participation model lacks the advantages of face-to-face discussions between the participants, but the online citizen engagement platform offers an interactive participation experience that allows people from different regions to work together creatively in solving community problems. The people who participate are not representative for any given community. That is why the main focus is on the quality of the solutions that are exchanged on the platform and not on the background of the citizens.

SMART Method of Public Policy is facing however the problem that every participation model has: effectiveness in generating a change of policy. It is ultimately up to the decision-makers to consider the results of any participative democracy exercise or not. The main advantage of SMART Method in this case is the little effort that every-day people put, in order to make their voices heard in the community. 

SMART Method of Public Policy is a mixed participation model that supports the governmental decision-making process. The method provides for authority, accountability, creativity, exchange of constructive ideas, educational approach, and perseverance.

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Source: Radu Oprea, "Online vs. Offline vs. Mixed Participation for Better Governmental Policy-Making," http://conference.faa.ro.


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