Saturday, February 24, 2007

A thought about mobilizing citizen participation via the Internet

A friend called from Moscow the other day, expressing concern about how to mobilize public demand for e-government services in Russia. In the United States, we expect civil society -- non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- to do that work. U.S. citizens have traditionally organized at the drop of a hat, and each organization can efficiently represent the opinions of its members before legislators and the executive branch of government.

My friend suggested that due to the unfortunate history of the Communism in Russia, Russian citizens do not like to affiliate with non-governmental organizations. What then is the alternative?

Again, in the United States, these days organizations often mobilize citizens to action via the Internet. Petitions are posted online, where they can be signed electronically by thousands of people. Mass emails are sent out to encourage recipients to in turn email their representatives in government. Some websites allow one to plug in a zip code, and automatically generate communications to one's representatives, and even to send them automatically. The blogosphere also allows people to vent their concerns, and indeed to network about those concerns; and influentials pay attention to the rumble in the blogosphere. These all appear to be cost effective means of allowing voters to express their demands to government officials.

It occurred to me that perhaps the Internet could serve in Russia as a virtual space for civil society. In cyberspace, Russians could more easily express their demands for government service. Indeed, they might network in cyberspace and thus build some of the trust needed to improve the interface between citizens and government. I thought of the model of the online lending organization, Prosper, which forms virtual groups of lenders and borrowers to establish trust in online transactions; perhaps that model might be somehow extrapolated to the build trust in government-citizen interfaces institutionalized by e-government.

Still, there are resource costs -- even if they are modest -- for organizing in cyberspace. Perhaps those resources could be covered by in kind donations and volunteer services, as open source software is developed on donated server time by volunteers who are not paid (at least by the open source central authority).

I also remember Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers by Mary Douglas Aaron Wildavsky. The book made the point (in 1983), that the rise of advocacy NGOs was in part the result of advances in technology such as copy machines and mass mailing technology. Using the technology, a small core cadre of committed members could reach out to a large community for support. The members of the larger community only have to be sufficiently committed to the purposes of the organization to send a few dollars each to participate. Organizations such as the Sierra Club, which can draw upon millions of supporters, can raise large amounts of funding from such small individual contributions, while making their contributers feel they are taking action in an important cause.

So I ask the question, can Russia find a financial model that will allow a few leaders to build the infrastructure in cyberspace that will allow citizens to express their demand for better government services through e-government?

This is a posting for which I would welcome comment and suggestions!

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