Opportunity and Need

I thought I would spend some self indulgent time reflecting on why online engagement is important and why (a year ago now) I was so keen to get out of a successful consultancy and to start Bang the Table. Obviously this was a partnership decision, Crispin and I were partners in our consulting business before starting Bang the Table, I will speak for my motivations here – but I know Crispin’s weren’t wildly different.

Part of it was opportunity – it was and is a damn fine idea for a business and the opportunity to build something like this from the ground up was too good to be missed.

Part of it was need. I’ve worked in Government both here (NSW Premiers Department and Planning Department) and in the UK. I’ve worked with Government from the outside as a lobbyist with the Farmers Association and I’ve worked as a consultant advising people on how to work with the government. You might say I have a good perspecitve on government. I believe there is a problem with government both here in Australia and around the world.

If you ask people what’s wrong with government you might get a variety of answers. Some think it is too green, some too brown, some too bureaucratic, some too big, some incompetent and some think it’s corrupt. I guess it depends on who you ask and which Government you ask about.

Personally I know that governments at all levels are generally made up of intellegent well meaning people who often have put aside the quest of greater rewards because they genuinely are motivated by wanting to do good in society. Sometimes their decisions are good and sometimes not so good. Where I percieve a real problem is the interaction of Government with the community becasue so much of this has been captured by factional interest groups.

Typically people might assume that these interest groups are developers, big industry, pubs and clubs etc but my perspective is different. I think that groups from all sides of the arguement have taken on the mantle of representing community views. Sure developers do this but so do environmental groups, community lobby groups and prominent individuals who are, perhaps not motivated by greed but by their own perspective on the world.

What’s missing in all of this is the rest of us. The great silent majority. Interest groups have become so adept at capturing the debate that often what passes for community engagement is entirely dominated by these minority groups.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am criticising the minority groups, far from it. They either believe passionately in what they are arguing for, or are pursuing their commercial interests or both. These are both perfectly honourable things to do in our society. But they are minorities (even if they don’t always realise this).

The problem is that these groups have often completely drowned out the voices of the rest of the community. I have an enormous faith in the rest of the community. They are, generally speaking, moderate, considered, practical and positive. The problem is they are not easy to hear from because they are also busy leading their day to day lives – because they are not activists.

The ways in which government have traditionally engaged, by hosing events that require attendance, by asking for submissions or by market research cannot engage most of these people because there are barriers to participation. It is difficult to participate in a meeting if you are not confident and articulate or if someone who is more so is hogging the floor. Many people don’t feel comfortable writing submissions, either that or they can’t be bothered. Market researchers get hung up on by busy people so their sample (no matter how demographically representative) is always self selecting and biased towards more activist groups in the community.

The great thing about online engagement (as a compliment to these other techniques) is that it breaks down these barriers. People can get involved easily and at a time and place of their own choosing. My faith in the rest of the community has grown as we have watched them engage on all sorts of issues. We have councils talking about their management plans getting 400 people visiting, looking at the plan and occasionally commenting when previously there were meetings to which nobody turned up. We have raging debates about heritage issues, transport and anything involving pets. The minorities are there too, sometimes noisy, still trying to dominate the debate and very welcome but more and more people are joining in, visiting and having a say. Why? Because it’s easy and they are interested. Its all very gratifying and will lead inexorably to greater community ownership of decisions and better more enduring results.

The great thing is that Government and the private sector are putting aside their natural caution and are getting involved too.

The chance to get people involved is ultimately why we built Bang the Table. There are other online tools and many more will come along but there is no turning back from online engagement and I for one believe that the world will be better for it.

Photo Credits: Vanessa

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