An e-government response to the climate change crisis: tapping into citizen creativity

I was one of 15 contributors asked to write about the future of e-government. My thinkpiece was part a broad and ambitious e-government progress report.

The original website has disappeared, but you can find a blog post explaining the context here, “A report on the progress of New Zealand e-government”.

I submitted the thinkpiece in June 2007, and it was published a year later.

Every day we receive fresh news about the impacts of climate change. The news is seldom nothing short of alarming. Rising sea levels, more frequent droughts, melting polar icecaps and unheralded species extinction are just some of the impacts foretold. In May 2007 Christian Aid predicted that a billion people could be forced to leave their homes over the next 50 years as the effects of climate change worsen an already serious crisis.

It’s not just not climate change alone we need to be concerned about, as we face a multitude of other global environmental problems such as over-fishing, deforestation, water scarcity and pollution. The magnitude of our predicament is beyond the scale of anything known before.

The case for urgent action is compelling and extends to virtually every corner of our lives and society. It already obvious that the challenges we face are placing incredible strains on our society and how it is governed.

Governments alone cannot take responsibility for tackling climate changes and reducing our ecological footprint. All of us need to respond in concert whether this is as individuals, members of neighbourhoods or associations, or in our workplaces. Policy and people power need to meet.

Current patterns of public participation typically provide limited opportunities for citizens to have input. These are not only limited in number, but also limited in the extent to which they draw on the values and commitment that each of us can offer. As Canadian sustainability expert Mark Roseland (1998) argues:

“To a considerable extent, the environmental crisis is a creativity crisis. By soliciting the bare minimum of public ‘input’, rather than actively seeking community participation from agenda-setting through to implementation and evaluation, local and senior-decision-makers have failed to tap into the well of human ingenuity”.

What is necessary is greater responsiveness by government to the creativity of citizens. An effective and far-sighted e-government programme can make a big contribution by freeing up talents within the ranks of government, better engaging with citizens, and ensuring citizens are well equipped to organise themselves locally.

There is an enormous amount of know-how and enthusiasm latent within the staff of government agencies. Yet strict departmental boundaries and accepted business practices – as the catch-cry ‘we’ve always done it that way’ attests – stifle the natural talents and prevent public servants from confronting anything but very narrow policies. What is really required is for the best and creative thinking to overflow the silos.

IT applications that make debate and dialogue across agencies not only easy and possible but actually enjoyable and productive can support a culture change. As our experience with brainstorming shows us, new ideas and approaches can fast become the norm. E-government tools and policies must allow for original and novel ideas to emerge from across the whole public service. Because ICTs are a disruptive medium it is likely that not all decision-makers will embrace a more inclusive approach to policy making. An e-government programme will also have to regulate and sanction where agencies do not join in with a spirit of open policy debate, as well as offer support and encouragement.

The resulting debate could be fierce. Thinking of just one example, we have government policy and agencies that promote road building with a concomitant increase in carbon dioxide emissions, while other policies encourage people to lessen their ecological footprint by getting out their cars and walking or cycling instead. This type of policy contradiction within government is profound. But only by bringing points of contradiction into the open and vigorously debating them will alternative views be given a fair hearing.

At the same time government taps into its own nous, the floodgates to genuine public participation must be opened wide. Opportunities for co-creating and collaborating on everything from broad policy to small local initiatives will allow the experience and knowledge of citizens to sit alongside the rigour of policy-makers. Online tools promoting participation have the potential to provide ways of involving people with significant knowledge and commitment, including tangata whenua and non-governmental organisations representatives, as well as Josephine or Hohepa Public walking in off the street.

There are many online tools available to promote effective online participation. These include deliberative polling, citizen-spaces, dialogue circles, small group dialogue, discussion forums, and online conferencing. Government agencies need to allow data to be accessed for analysis and re-shaping by academics and other interested parties. An e-government programme would support agencies to develop the expertise and flair so they’re good at working with citizens.

Finally, there is a role for government equipping citizens with an armoury of online tools and skills to support their own organising locally or on social and environmental issues. Examples include running a walking school bus, collecting data on water quality in waterways, acting as a kaitiaki of a beach or park, and establishing a neighbourhood run wind energy generator. Rather than actively controlling or running the myriad of local initiatives occurring around the country (where local knowledge and commitment is the biggest contributor to success), what is needed is support. This must include access to ICT applications and skills. An e-government programme may not want to run these directly, but it could support, fund and encourage community ICT initiatives.

In the UK this has already happened. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister granted e-innovation funding to at least one project creating a series of easy-to-use tools that will allow anyone to set up and manage their own local campaign on any issue that’s important to them (see [now unavailable)). As a public corporation the BBC is providing a open platform for local campaigns through its Action Network. The online network assists citizens to “…change something in your local area, get in touch with people who feel the same way and get advice on taking action”. Anyone can post information about a local issue and call for support. The latest issue online was a Campaign for Clean Air in London aiming to meet WHO air quality standards by the 2012 Olympic Games.

By working to support citizens, better involving citizens in policy and decision-making and tapping into the creativity within government, an e-government programme can make a major contribution by tapping into human ingenuity. This can be done in ways that build trust or connections between citizens and with government. In doing so our collective ability to respond to emerging an environmental predicament and any opportunities will be strengthened.

Stephen Blyth works with both community organisations and government agencies on web content development, online participation and community organisation capacity building projects. From 1998 to 2001 he was co-chairperson of ECO, New Zealand’s national network of environment organisations ( Details of Stephen’s latest work are published on his blog.

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