Taking it on the Chin
In the previous post I wrote about how the Danish government officials at Reboot had to wade through a lot of suspicion and frustration from the participants before getting to the actual discussion at hand. As David Weinberger said, they took it on their chin. In this posting I want to discuss the frustration and suspicion that participants expressed in more detail, especially because I’ve seen it happen repeatedly last year at PolitCamp in Graz and GovCamp Amsterdam, as well as last month at Hack de Overheid (‘hack the government’). As I commented then as well, I think we need to learn when to break that pattern and check emotions and reflexes.

Danish IT policy discussion, photo by Andreas Johannsen

Frustration and suspicion
First let me acknowledge that the frustration ‘we the people’ have in general in dealing with bureaucracies and political structures is real. And we are right, based on our previous experiences, to be suspicious about the veracity of statements like ‘we really want to listen to your concerns’ because often strongly worded affirmations of ‘listening’ and ‘we’ll look at it’  turned out to be untrue. So much so that they’ve become red flags when they are now used.
The flipside of our frustration and suspicion is that we tend to paint all our interactions with ‘government’ and ‘politics’ with the same brush. In everything we see and hear we will tend to see our picture of government confirmed, we will fit the data into the established pattern.
We are selling ourselves short however if we don’t get past this frustration and suspicion when confronted with a civil servant or politician that actually is interested in hearing our story, and involving us in their work.

Andrew Turner talking, me taking notes at Danish IT policy session. Photo by Andreas Johannsen

There is no ‘the government’
First we need to recognize that there is no ‘the government’. Government is a very complex collection of different agencies, departments, local, regional and national levels, executive bodies and whatnot. And most pieces of that puzzle have no idea what is going on elsewhere. Also, each of these government organizations is made up of individual people. Projecting your experience with one piece of government on a civil servant that you happen to talk to some place else then is not only unfair but uncalled for. There is probably nothing the civil servant can do that will change your frustration anyway. Projecting your assumptions and prejudices about an entire group onto an individual, and proceeding to treat that individual based on that projection only, also happens to be the definition of discrimination.

This participant announced her candidacy for ‘Minister of the Crowds’, a thought I liked

Suspension of Disbelief
When to shelve our suspicion that ‘they’ won’t listen to us, when to suspend our disbelief this civil servant in front of us is for real?
One of the signs can be what ‘they’ are doing to get to talk to you. In this case it was a team responsible for literally writing Denmarks next national IT strategy that came to Reboot, a key European webgeek gathering, to talk to us in a locker room. This was not your average ‘public participation’ session in some non-descript grey government building at a time of day when only 50+ white males in early retirement with too much time on their hands can attend. ‘They’ came and sought ‘us’ out on ‘our home turf’ because we might be knowledgeable about the subject they are responsible for. And it wasn’t a token visit either, they were fully involved during the entire conference. The same was the case with the other events I mentioned at the start: passionate professionals seeking ‘us’ out during weekends even. In my experience those gov officials that don’t care about your participation usually invite you to come to their place. So that when you don’t bother to show up they can pretend you’re ok with their plans. The former is an active stance, the latter a passive on. Active stances are tell-tale signs for you and me to suspend our disbelief.

Check your Frustration at the Door
Our frustrations about our dealings with government are very real. Nevertheless we need to re-evaluate our frustration every single time when interacting with a civil servant.
Are you really listening to what this civil servant is saying to you, or just to the echos ringing of your frustration when you hear it?
Is this civil servant the one that can actually address your concern, your anger? Or should you be venting your feelings someplace else, e.g. at a different agency, or at a different level, or in the political sphere outside the government bodies?
Will venting your frustration contribute to a useful outcome of the exchange? Or will it just cause your counterpart to become defensive?
If you answer these questions ‘no’, then check your frustration at the door. That way you make room for having an actual conversation.

A growing number of post-its with suggestions on the wall

Have something to offer
One of the things I caught myself on is that on several topics I have frustrations in dealing with government people, but upon closer examination I don’t have much beyond that (yet). I can formulate what ‘they’ are doing wrong or ‘don’t get’, but find it more difficult to actually contribute constructively beyond the obvious when asked. Because getting into the less obvious requires thinking it through, and formulate steps and actions to implement my ideas in a ‘yes, and’ in stead of a ‘no, but’ fashion. It’s one thing to say ‘government should listen more’ or ‘just open up and become transparent’, quite another to help bring that process about and suggest practical steps as to how I would like them to listen to me specifically, or what I think should be more transparent. It means I need to care to know more about ‘them’, to be able to see their context more. So, when an opportunity arises to interact with government, and it warrants suspension of disbelief, I need to be willing to prepare. I need to take an activist stance. Otherwise me saying ‘government isn’t listening’ is just a fig leaf for inaction and passivity on my side.

Jakob Willer, Danish ITST (l), discussion going on (r)

Civil Servants need to do something too
Real conversations are two-way, so it’s not just ‘us’ that need to do something, the same goes for the civil servants that are our counterparts. First, I need you as a civil servant to be a real human being, be an individual. I know that there are things you can and cannot say, you can and cannot promise, you can and cannot do. It is the same for each of us that is acting from a certain role. But: acknowledge that explicitly, so it does not feel like being stonewalled or like you’re being defensive, when you have to say no.
Help ‘us’ to overcome our suspicions by showing us how you intend to involve ‘us’ into an ongoing conversation. Usually ‘parpticipation’ takes place at the start of a process, then some magic happens in a black box, and out comes something on the other side we don’t really recognize. Involve us all the way, from idea up to and including implementation. So we can see how our contributions matter or not. Also keep your promises about follow-up. I’ve noticed at times that ‘we’ll get back to you quickly’ means something different in my book than it does for some government agencies. To keep the conversation going however, to keep momentum, to make it feel like an ‘on-going’ thing, we need to know exactly when ‘quickly’ is. In the case of the Danish government session at Reboot this meant e.g. the transcripts of the post-it notes were up online during the conference the same day, and the URL was given during the session.

Jakob Willer and Christian Lanng at Danish digital policy discussion. Photo by Andreas Johannsen

Taking it on the Chin, Reprise
The Danes took it on the chin. One of them said to me in later e-mail conversation they know this is going to happen a lot, and they don’t take it personal. They see they need to go through it before actually getting somewhere. That is laudable even if you think it should be the normal behaviour of civil servants. Nadia El-Imam during the discussion session with Danish government officials asked if we as citizens could enter into a contract with them so we could hold them to their commitments of transparency and involvement. Christian Lanng, one of the Danish civil servants present, said “Yes, if I can enter into the same type of contract with you as well.” Exactly.

2 reactions on “Reboot 11 – Transparent Government, Attitude and Activism

  1. while I’m not really into the whole opendata thing. I find this a particulary good post on how to behave constructively in an “open source”- style meeting.
    I’m considering to make those suggestions (unwritten) rules.
    It’s also good to see that everybody has difficulties checking their frustrations. we’re human after all.
    kudos to the civil servants for opening up.

  2. David Eaves phrases this much the same notion in terms of Clay Shirky’s bargain.
    “I believe that in an open city, a similar bargain exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfil its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must do its part, but so, on the flip side, must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.”

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