Mathew Lowry

An analysis of participation rates in the Obama Administration’s Open Government initiative provide a refreshing reality check for us in Europe.

One would think, based on some of my posts, that I was a starry-eyed idealist when it comes to the potential of online communications to improve understanding and participation in the EU by Europeans. Far from it.

As we launched Blogactiv a flurry of new issue-based Web2.0 sites were launched (e.g., see posts on Road to Copenhagen and SecurityCommunity.eu), and at the time I expressed some scepticism that such experiments would work, as I couldn’t see the reward system in place to kick-start the virtuous circle such sites need.

[For what it’s worth: ‘Road’, despite covering one of the topics of the day, is almost empty of participation – the forum is empty and there have been a grand total of 3 news items this year. SecurityCommunity, on the other hand, has a lot of video content, but all the content may be pump-priming by the site owners as any interaction is hidden behind a closed door. I think I applied for a key back then, but don’t remember receiving it, and neither does gmail.]

Anyway, since November 2008, no conversation on communications on EU affairs in Brussels is complete without reference to the Obama online campaign and his Online Government Initiative. So an analysis by ReadWriteWeb – U.S. Government Reaches Out to the Social Web for Collaboration, But Are Users Reaching Back? – provides a refreshing reality check for us in Europe.

The full article is worth the read. In essence, it gives the numbers on participation in the Online Government Initiative, concluding:

Millions of Americans have Internet access … and around 70 percent of them are using social media … Even if we generously estimate the number of Open Government Dialogue participants at 10,000, the results are disappointing:

And this is within a single nationstate, using the Obama brand, operating in one language.

Many of the comments that followed the article were insightful. My favourites fall into two strands:

Communities don’t just happen:

  • “reading, thinking and then writing about anything significant takes time, and many people come to the web for fun, not to spend time giving feedback to the government” Nancy Creighton
  • “The government needs to … show people they care so that we can get past the apathy … “If we build it, they will come” isn’t a successful marketing strategy for government 2.0.” Justin
  • “I think this shows a clear distinction between building an audience and building a community … The later (sic) is much harder…. Audiences are quick, fleeting, flash mobs. Communities are … collaborative efforts that require contribution and work.” Bill Rice
  • “Where we’re failing is on bringing the dialogue into a community … I had hoped that the dialogue would come out of online communities on these sites. That means taking the time and effort to build them, to have a presence, to have a conversation. Conversation means having people willing to monitor and engage. That’s what’s been missing.” Karoli

Why build separate sites?

(cf comments re: Road to Copenhagen and SecurityCommunity.eu, above).

  • “If the government wants to know what it’s online constituents are thinking, there’s already a plethora of websites that can help them answer that question…. they should set up an account and post away” Marcello
  • “Where is my congress person? Why isn’t she out there using social media tools trying to build a relationship with me and forming community around her ideas?” Justin

Trust

But my all-time favourite comment was from Nancy Creighton, when she pointed out:

“… I think that we’ve been trained to expect to be ignored. President Obama’s administration may be trying to change that, but there’s a deep seated mistrust because we haven’t had such a mechanism in the past, and what we’ve tried has been unsuccessful, so why try again?”

Trust again. In my previous posts about the importance of trust in online communities and EU communications, I’ve pointed out that high distrust in the EU will doom any ‘classic PR’ communications about the EU in general. The campaign we saw for the election is a classic example of this – if I don’t trust the institution, nor understand why it is meddling in my country’s affairs, why on Earth endorse it with my vote?

While online communities may offer one way out of this bind, the above article seems to make the European mountain even higher to climb.

If mistrust dogs the USA’s efforts in Government2.0, with their sparkling new, charismatic, switched-on, Web-savvy President, then what chance is there for the EU, with its technophobic Commission and “6-months and I’m outta here” Presidency? Roll on, Lisbon …

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