The death of deference is alive and well

By: Sandford BorinsIn my previous post, I wrote about how the Internet can be used to circulate videos that draw attention to the gaffes and failings of politicians and public servants. This post looks at another aspect of the death of deference, how the Internet can be used to influence policy decisions.In Digital State at the Leading Edge we reported on interviews with a number of digital leaders in government. One of them, Melissa Thomson, delivered this message: “Information travels fast, and people organize quickly. Government can either ignore it, or get with it.” We’ve seen two recent examples of quick organization using social networking.University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist argued that the federal government’s proposed copyright legislation would be too restrictive by posting a text-only YouTube video making his case and listing 30 ways to pressure the government to reverse its course. He also established a Facebook group Fair Copyright for Canada. (If you want to link to the latter, you will have to join Facebook.) The Facebook group quickly swelled to over 36,000 members, the government felt the heat, and has announced that it’s rethinking its copyright legislation.In Saskatchewan, deputy premier Ken Krawetz announced that the new government would be looking for a new symbol and was considering eliminating the wheat sheaf introduced in 1977 by the Blakeney government. A Facebook group was immediately organized by Derek Strelioff, a University of Saskatchewan undergraduate, and grew to over 400 members.The NDP opposition joined Strelioff in defense of the wheat sheaf. Here too the government succumbed to pressure and backtracked.Both cases demonstrate the ability of protest groups to come into being overnight on Facebook and YouTube and spread rapidly. It is also interesting that the groups were organized by individuals, one a professor with expertise on the topic, and another by a student activist.While the protest groups could accommodate the support of pre-existing interest groups, they did not depend on them. And the groups had an impact by attracting public attention, generating opposition, and forcing government to reverse course.The Saskatchewan case bears an important lesson about reform. Rebranding a government is a major reform and is controversial. It’s no secret that the Saskatchewan Party has been contemplating a rebranding. The problem with talking about intentions, as deputy premier Krawetz did, is it arouses the opposition of those who prefer the old symbols.Without showing new symbols, it is impossible to build support for rebranding. In contrast, the Harper government said nothing about its intention to rebrand the Canada site. One day we woke up, and “Canada’s New Government” was there in full force. The moral: just do it.

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