On the one hand, with so many people now using the internet to voice their opinions, the government realises that it can no longer ignore what is being said. It can no longer ignore the expectation that opinions so aired should be acknowledged and acted upon. On the other hand, on many issues, the views springing from the ground are multifarious. One cannot please everybody. Moreover, many opinions are either not knowledge-based or suffer from little prior deliberation. Even with all the will in the world, it is very hard to engage seriously with those who want something without first thinking through what they want.
In Singapore, the problem is compounded by a history of government attempts to paint the digital sphere as unworthy of engagement. Hard though engaging may be, it is made doubly so because the government must first swallow its pride, repudiate its previous stance and stand penitent before its digital citizens.
Still, it is not obvious that the message — “internet engagement is inescapable” — has sunk in. As recently as last month, character assassination continued.
In an addendum to the 2011 Presidential Address last week, [the Ministry of Law] noted that “the proliferation of New Media has brought about new challenges to the rule of law” and it will “review legislation to deal with harmful and unlawful online conduct”.
The Ministry of Information, Communications & the Arts (MICA) also raised concerns on lies and misinformation online. “Operating under a cloak of anonymity, some content creators also resort to lies and misinformation,” noted MICA in its addendum to the 2011 Presidential Address issued last week.
— New Asia Republic, 21 Oct 2011, Impending crunch on New Media? by Donaldson Tan. Link
This position is appealing to those who continue to hold the view, even if subconsciously, that being the body with data and experience, the government has all the right answers. It also appeals to those ministers and bureaucrats who find dealing with opinionated people very troublesome. Lurking somewhere in their wish list would be a situation where government-friendly media would crowd out independent-minded Joes and Janes. That way, the government can “engage” with digital media without having to suffer the Joes and Janes who, since they have been pushed to the inconsequential margins, can be safely ignored.
It would be extremely foolish to hope for such an unrealistic outcome. Every day wasted waiting for miraculous salvation is another day more for citizens to write off the government and the party in power.
Yet, the central problems remain. How does one respond to demands that pull in multiple directions? How does one engage with those whose demands do not spring from knowledge of the issues involved?
Two kinds of digital-speak from the public
Half a day spent at GovCamp 2.0 gave me the time to crystallise some thoughts. The seeds were planted by something that keynote speaker Jane Fountain said. Without recording what she said, I can’t regurgitate it, but I scribbled into my notebook three expressions she used which were pivotal: Civic virtue, Mob rule and Filtering.
My thoughts (not quite original, as noted above) now run like this:
Public demands are, very roughly, of two kinds. The first points to specific failings, which aren’t supposed to have happened, e.g. a pothole in a road has not been fixed for months; a called ambulance took an hour to arrive; or my daughter’s teacher was proselytising in class. Dealing with these should not be difficult. It needs a mechanism to monitor such complaints, rectify the shortcomings, and some kind of central portal that issues brief statements explaining what went wrong and how it has been fixed. It does mean, however, a serious effort to establish a listening mechanism whose scope is wide enough to pick up digital demands from a huge variety of internet platforms — but I’m pretty sure crawler robots can be designed to automate the task. It may also be necessary for another mechanism to spot patterns in demands/complaints, as a more bird’s-eye view will reveal underlying systemic flaws that cause similar problems to surface again and again.
The second kind of citizen-speak has to do more with policies. It is far more difficult terrain with a cacophony of opinions. Policy development is necessarily knowledge-intensive and redesign is heavily contingent on available resources and value-judgements, since trade-offs are inescapable. Trying to respond to individual demands by digital citizens is probably futile and may risk a descent into mob rule.
A better path for government to take is to focus on engagement with civil society when it comes to policy areas. Non-profit groups, as Jane Fountain pointed out, often contain within them individuals with deep knowledge and decades of experience of their fields — I believe she was referring to this when she spoke of ‘civic virtue’. Civil society people may be more knowledgeable than the scholar types in the ministries who have never been outside the Civil Service. As well, like-minded individuals working together are often capable of digesting reams of data if the government would only release them.
Engage civil society as proxy for discordant individual voices
The solution now emerges: Firstly, release more data, in raw form so that civil society can process them in novel ways, draw new insights and add to their knowledge (and the knowledge of society at large), and secondly, develop more respectful engagement with non-government organisations (NGOs). By ‘NGOs’ I don’t mean only those that the government deigns to register and recognise, but all groups, however small, of citizens and residents who have expertise and interest in engagement.
Civil society groups are also more understanding of the trade-offs that may be necessary in policy formulation. They are also filter beds that sift out crazy ideas and thus may make more meaningful dialogue partners with the government.
Yet, I suspect, difficult as dealing with outspoken individual netizens may be, dealing with NGOs is just as hard, because this government has spent the last 40 years on a crusade against NGOs. Wanting a monopoly of power, our government has been intolerant of alternative centres of power and influence such as independent media and trade unions, and autonomous NGOs with their own supporters. Those it managed to tame and co-opt, it could live with on the clear understanding who is boss. Others, like LGBT equality group People Like Us, it would refuse to even recognise their existence. Draconian laws are passed to inhibit NGOs’ funding and growth. A climate of fear comes in useful to scare talent away from them. Academics are warned not to get “political” by involvement with advocacy groups if they want tenure or even contract renewal. Once in a while, like when Vincent Cheng et al organised among friends to help migrant workers in the 1980s, a confection of allegations is whipped up to justify detention without trial.
And now we want the government to engage with NGOs? Stand naked with an admission of previous wrongs? But it’s the only workable path forward, in the digital age, when responsiveness has to be the non-negotiable norm, yet dealing with a disorganised digital rabble may be impossible.
Engagement must be visible to the digital public
At this point, I hasten to add that there is one more mindset the government must jettison. On the few occasions when the government has engaged with NGOs, the government has been quick to state its expectation that such engagement must be behind closed doors. Their position seems to be that if the dialogue is to continue the NGO must accept the confidentiality of it, most probably to avoid embarrassment for the government should it need to make a policy U-turn.
In the new age, this is self-defeating. If the cacophonic individual netizens are to be even partly placated, they must see that those among their peers who are organised in collectives and NGOs are being listened to. Many individuals will understand that no government can respond to each and every demand made on blogs, forums and social media. But if there is no visible engagement with civil society groups even, then disgust will only escalate.
In other words, engagement with civil society groups must take place openly online as much as it does face-to-face. Proposals and counter-proposals have to be visible to the digital public. Robust criticisms of government policy must not be confined to conference rooms but must also be allowed to be aired.
One huge benefit will emerge from this. When individuals see that the way to get engagement is to participate in civil society, it will encourage more to join. Healthy civil society can only strengthen Singapore as a whole and add resilience to our communities.