High touch or high tech?

Published: June 14th, 2007

By: Sandford BorinsThe participants at the 2007 Lac Carling Congress were asked how effective a variety of approaches were at engaging citizens for useful policy input. The participants, (mainly public servants), were most skeptical about scientific polling and broad e-mail or phone-in surveys: 40 per cent thought they were not effective, 50 per cent somewhat effective and only 10 per cent very effective.The group was a bit more optimistic about Internet discussion forums or blogs (down to 30 per cent not effective, and up to 25 per cent very effective), but they were most optimistic about meetings – focus groups, discussions, town halls, or meetings on the Web. Half of the participants thought meetings were somewhat effective and half very effective.The group was then asked to describe the views of their political masters on whether public servants should engage directly with citizens. 31 per cent said they had politicians' full support for obtaining citizen input, 23 per cent said that politicians had some reservations about staff engaging citizens directly, and 46 per cent said that politicians would limit staff to surveys about specific questions such as service experience, and keep to themselves the lead role in seeking citizen input.These two questions tell a consistent story: public servants think that the give-and-take of meetings is the best way to engage citizens and recognize that politicians want to take the lead at such meetings.The playwright Oscar Wilde observed a century ago, the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings. Online tools were developed to make consultation easier, by allowing us to do it in the comfort of our homes at any time.Nonetheless, even the technorati who frequent the Lac Carling Congress continue to think that, for consultation, the real thing is the face-to-face of what the Greeks called the agora, or public space. So the challenge to public servants developing online tools such as www.consultingcanadians.gc.ca or to politicians at the digital leading edge such as Garth Turner (www.garth.ca) is to continue making their virtual tools more real.

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