Other Side of the Divide
Customers Find a Voice
to Online Activism
by Barry Tavlin
Recently I had the exciting opportunity
to meet with many of Europe's leaders in the field of E-Government.
For people involved in Community Technology, E-Government may be something
new, but it is closely related to the work of CTCs and to the Community
E-Government - 2003
Right now you're probably wondering, "What is E-Government
and why should I care?" Like many people, you've probably used
it but not talked about it. And, interestingly, among the people
who do talk about it, there are many different viewpoints and definitions
about what it is and what it should be.
Most people agree that it involves taking the basic interactions
that you have with government and enabling them through the Internet.
So you can pay your parking tickets online, request various forms
or actually fill out the forms online, find out about important
deadlines, read meeting minutes, or find out about various policies
and regulations. By moving these things online, the government makes
it quicker, easier, and cheaper to deliver some basic services to
For many people, this improved delivery of services is the beginning
and end of E-Government. There is a clear economic case for it,
making it easy to justify. And in this era when the government is
trying to get more business-like, it makes good "business sense"
to treat citizens like customers, and for governments to think about
"Citizen Relationship Management" like businesses think
about "Customer Relationship Management".
Some people, including the current Bush administration, take the
business approach even further. As described in a recent report
from the Office of Management and Budget, the Bush administration
wants to apply state-of-the-art business management techniques to
deliver better government service in four areas:
" Government-to-Citizen interactions, as above;
" Government-to-Business interactions, making it easier for
businesses to deal with the government;
" Government-to-Government interactions, making it easier for
different levels of government to share information more efficiently;
" Internal efficiencies, making government workers more productive
so they can serve the public better.
Some people emphasize the business aspect even more strongly. At
the recent E-Government conference in Germany, several of the main
presentations focused on how E-Government programs can make Europe
more efficient and therefore more competitive in the world economy.
Several of the governments represented there have ambitious plans
to move major government services online by 2005. Several of the
European countries are more advanced in E-Government than we are
in the states.
Still other people have a different approach. At the 2003 Political
Marketing Conference in London, some of the presenters (including
your humble editor) looked at E-Government from the standpoint of
E-Democracy - getting beyond the necessary tasks of delivery of
services and economic efficiencies to the task of using the technology
to foster democracy and civic engagement. The Internet is a powerful
tool to facilitate communication, and communication is critical
in a democracy. A government is more than just a business, and citizens
are more than customers.
For people involved in Community Technology, this is no small point.
Many of us and many of our stakeholders are dissatisfied customers,
dissatisfied citizens. Just as people in government and business
are attempting to shape E-Government in the image of business, people
in Community Technology can raise their voices and attempt to shape
E-Government into something to foster equality, democracy and access
for all. And they can use the Internet to help them in this process.
This important work is already under way. In Issue 2 of Technicity
Times there was an article about a democratic E-Government initiative
sponsored by the California Community Technology Policy Group during
the November, 2002 elections. (Click here to review the article.)
This pilot project was a great illustration of how CTCs can help
strengthen civic engagement through the use of E-Government programs
like online voter registration. Let's hope for more projects like
this one in the future.
Closely related to E-Government are efforts to do political campaigning,
advocacy and activism online. This year we've seen remarkable advances
in online activism and campaigning. In the last issue of Technicity
Times, we commented on the tremendous role of the Internet in helping
to organize a worldwide anti-war movement overnight. And since that
issue, we've seen another remarkable development - the emergence
of the Howard Dean campaign for president, fueled in large part
by his use of the Internet.
By now all the major media have reported on how Howard Dean emerged
from being a relatively unknown candidate to being the Democratic
Party's front-runner and its best-funded candidate. In this era
of monopolized media and Big Money selection of candidates, this
accomplishment is simply unprecedented. And whether or not Dean
ultimately gets the nomination, his campaign will have a lasting
impact on our political life.
How did he do it? He used the Internet as a tool to help his supporters
from around the country to get organized and take the initiative
on his behalf. Specifically, through the use of Meetup.com, MoveOn.org
and some new community-building software that was produced, and
the use of BLOGs - online Web Logs - the campaign was able to unleash
tens of thousands of supporters, almost overnight. And he was able
to generate enough grass roots donations to surpass all the other
candidates and become the front-runner.
(By way of full disclosure, let me add that I am not a Dean supporter,
and also I am not convinced that he will get the nomination. Still,
I think there are tremendous lessons to be learned from his campaign.)
As would be expected, when other candidates saw these results,
they too started to have a stronger online presence. But they have
not captured the excitement and creative energy of the Dean campaign,
not yet, anyway. Why not?
The way that the Dean campaign has been run is new, fresh, and
creative. Most importantly, it reveals a trust in the people - the
supporters, the activists - to understand the issues and in a sense
to become organizers for the campaign. This happened on dozens of
BLOGs, through Meetup.com, and in various online and offline tactics.
And the campaign came to life. You can get a taste of this at Dean's
web site BLOG, http://www.blogforamerica.com.
On the other hand, the other candidates have been running more
traditional campaigns. Even candidates whose platforms and message
are more 'progressive' or 'empowering' or 'liberal' or 'democratic'
have so far run their campaigns in the normal centralized, top-down
manner, and they haven't engaged people the way Dean's campaign
has. The results speak for themselves.
Of course, there are lots of factors in the elections, not just
use of the Internet. And there's no telling what the mood of the
country will be for the next election, who will vote, and how the
Internet will play a role in the election itself. But one thing
is clear - the political process got a big wake-up call when grass
roots activists were able to take the initiative through the Internet.
And many "dissatisfied customers" have found a way to
make their dissatisfaction known and get organized to do something
Barry Tavlin consults on
Internet Technology and Strategy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org