Smarter online government-people engagement

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.

18 Responses to “Smarter online government-people engagement”


  1. 1 Anonymous 20 November 2011 at 08:26

    For real engagement, it really depends on the specific society you are talking about. If it is a government backed society like NTUC, it only benefits the incumbent.

    I would say it is really between NGOs vs GOs. Sadly I would say the GOs are winning. Participation is always there, the deciding factor would be for GO participants to switch sides.

  2. 2 Actually nothing to worry lah 20 November 2011 at 10:12

    If I were the PAP, I am not worried by all these online criticism, no matter how or what they criticise PAP or the government.

    Because these have not been translated into activism on the ground that can cause big impact, especially on the majority who do not surf the internet on such matters.

    Which is why PAP can still win 60% mandate and 93% seats in elections despite all these online onslaughts.

    For one thing, the vast majority of online critics or keyboard warriors, are basically armchair critics where any ordinary Joes and Janes can say what they like and easily. And being ordinary Joes and Janes, they are most unlikely to be activists or organisers on the ground to further their cause (if there is one).

    Of course there are the few exceptions, like Alex Au of Yawning bread, who actually work the ground on issues faced by foreign workers.

    And of course there was Tan Kin Lian of Hong Lim Park rally fame, and who also blog the most of all the Presidential candidates on various social and financial issues. But alas, despite all these profile, he lost his deposit in the recent Presidential Elections!

    So you see, unlike in other countries, activism, whether on the Net or on the ground in Singapore, is not necessarily an advantage or has impact on a candidate in winning elections, which is what really matter for a political party.

    • 3 yuen 20 November 2011 at 12:55

      to add to what you said: even if PAP’s vote in the next election drops to 50% and opposition parties win half the seats, it would still be the largest party in parliament and will form the next government, with all the economic control through the government system and the GLCs; further, it would be able to win a lot more seats if it encourages opposition party proliferation and 3-cornered fights, e.g., by cutting the election deposit — the large deposit gives opposition parties incentive to coordinate their candidate fieldings, since in any 3-corner fight the lesser opposition party is likely to get less than 12.5% — there are probably other methods it can think of in order to maintain power

  3. 4 digitzen 20 November 2011 at 16:02

    There were just the same dozen of activists at Speaker Corner and the less than 400 same attendees at most of the occasions that i was there to look see look see.

  4. 5 anon 20 November 2011 at 19:51

    Alex,

    After the unions, the two big NGOs that govt constantly keep under control are the consumers’ association (CASE) and The AAS. It is not difficult to imagine the kind of clout they could and would wield vis a vis govt if they are not forever kept in check, which they are at present.

    The vast majority of the other NGOs are basically challenged it terms of membership strength. There are other groups which the govt is fully aware of their potential to challenge it and has thus also been well infiltrated – the religious, ethnic or ethnic-based social and or business organisations and certain old boys organisations. They are ‘traditional’ groups since the early years of strife well known and well controlled due to the political propensities of these organisations. The law society is but one relatively recent addition to such ‘warned and watched’ groups. Look at what happened to TOC and muruwah.

    There is constant, unabated overweening vigilance and monitoring by govt of all groups, including those overseas.

    This govt takes no prisoner, nor IMO would it ever allowed itself to be taken hostage. Not as long as the Lee family is in charge and there would be another Lee coming along by the way. In-between, Singapore would see seat-warmers in the likes of Kee Chiu (note how lembak he is) and BG Tan. People though high in rank where they came from, but are completely willing to subordinate themselves and to obey orders from above.

  5. 6 Martyn See 21 November 2011 at 01:28

    Who are these civil society groups that are engaging the Govt behind our backs? How come I or Singaoreans For Democracy never get invited to these clandestine pow wows?

    • 7 yuen 21 November 2011 at 10:23

      that’s just part of Democracy with Asian Characteristics,or Consensus Based Social System; someone has to judge whether your organization is out to seek consensus and has the desire to fit into the “system”; only those get to be part of the “process”

      (BTW I am not part of the “system” and has not taken part in the “process”; I merely observed that these exist)

      • 8 Poker Player 21 November 2011 at 16:00

        “Democracy with ***Asian*** Characteristics”

        Phillipines, India, South Korea, Taiwan,…you have to stop drinking the PAP kool-aid and use a different adjective.

      • 9 yuen 21 November 2011 at 19:51

        maybe you prefer the expression “democracy with Singapore characteristics”? I dont – it makes Singapore sound too important

      • 10 Poker Player 22 November 2011 at 11:56

        You are grasping at straws again.

        You can’t call something Asian just because calling it Singaporean makes it sound unimportant. Surely you recognize the obvious illogicality of this!!

        Why not call speaking a few languages but badly an Asian trait?

      • 11 Poker Player 22 November 2011 at 12:15

        “maybe you prefer the expression “democracy with Singapore characteristics”? I dont – it makes Singapore sound too important”

        You are catching on. That’s the PAP reason too for calling Singaporean features Asian.

        Calling enforced “respect” for leaders sound better as Asian values than as Singaporean values.

  6. 12 Tan Tai Wei 21 November 2011 at 09:42

    People mustn’t be induced, deliberately or not, to take government sweeping accusation of internet postings as being half-truths or lies to be answers to some of the pertinent issues raised of late there, but which government has yet to address. Examples are 1) those “declassified documents” in London and Singapore’s official early history in context of past ISD detainees’ recent appeal for restitution, 2) the so-claimed “Marxist plot” of the eighties in context of new information given in recent testimonies by some of the detainees and news that Tharman, Dhana and Tony Tan had had reservations about ISD’s case, and 3) the seeming unlikelihood of all three Tony Tan’s sons’ doing soft national service being a coincidence.

    The undoubted truth that many internet postings are irresponsibly done cannot be a cloak, deliberately used or not, to cover from public awareness the pertinent ones. Government hasn’t addressed them, even though it truthfully states that distortions and lies exist in internet postings.

    And with regard to regulating internet postings, shouldn’t the other media be also regulated? Even if their published stuff are free from half truths and distortions, they can, and surely have sinned by omission. What they don’t publish, or under-publish, and how they publish, send messages as to importance of deeds and events, even whether they exist or occurred. So they can lie and distort by withholding publication.

  7. 13 anon 21 November 2011 at 12:33

    Martyn,

    IMO, Govt’s primary concern is to control NOT to engage.
    It’s top down is there is any engagement for a specific purpose. The govt is holding the leash and or pulling the strings, the puppet meister.

  8. 14 Saycheese 21 November 2011 at 12:45

    In the 70s’, not so government friendly journalists were locked up by the ISD. As the government consolidated its control over the newspapers, no one dared to object. The newspapers had to be mouth pieces for the PAP to survive, until the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, which consolidated all the newspapers companies into one. Before the Act was passed, the Law Society objected to it. Francis Seow was then detained and laws passed to neuter the Law Society such that it could no longer comment adversely on pending legislation.

    Multifarious anonymous voices are proliferating on the internet probably keeping the ISD busy checking and updating on the IP Addresses, ready for the night when they have to go knocking on doors to curb the noise. Some may entertain the futile hope that those in power can change their mindset that has been fortified over two generations of daily practice. It is wishful to think that the control freaks would share information to strengthen their critics.

  9. 15 Chanel 21 November 2011 at 17:41

    1) People would find it materially less necessary to air their views in cyberspace if our mainsteam media were more objective (rather than favouring the PAP). So PAP would not have to fear the internet had it allowed the mainstream media to function like they do in other developed countries.

    2) Don’t hold your breath for a Freedom of Information Act here because it is never going to happen as long as the PAP remains in power. Their modus operandi is to treat ordinary S’poreans like mushrooms…..i.e. feed us bullshit and keep us in the dark.

  10. 16 paintiam 21 November 2011 at 20:49

    What civil group represents the collective voice that makes up those who regularly write and read in the internet?

    I dont think, you know what you are talking abt.

  11. 17 Dy 23 November 2011 at 18:09

    We speak of ‘government engagement with online criticism’ as if government engagement work like a singular monolithic entity. But it is not. What of a PAP minister who takes the time to engage with critics online be it through blogs, Facebook or twitter then vs one who does not? Within the government itself, there are different adoption rates of online engagement, different beliefs in its usefulness and effectiveness and different outcomes.

    Consider Mr Goh’s “replying to you is very kind of me already” faux pas versus Mr Teo’s quick condemnation and subsequent placation of the ‘Jason Neo saga’. Both had clearly very different types of responses vis-a-vis replies/criticism with vastly different results.

    I think NGO’s could expand their repertoires of strategies in their online activism to purposefully engage with people in government who may be more sympathetic or more open to engagement. This increases their chance of any kind of meaningful dialogue with ‘someone’ from the government and on the other hand makes the non-engagers sit up and take notice.

    MSM acts as a fail safe zone for the government to ‘engage’ where the right of reply is skewed. It is this dependency on MSM that I believe can explain for some of the aversion and arrogance with regards to embracing online engagement. I can’t see any real change unless, of course, if we free up newspaper publishing laws…

  12. 18 Anonymous 25 November 2011 at 18:08

    Technology is there for everyone to use, even for tyrants or enlightened despots. If the gov really decides to come down hard on the internet community, the community will not survive, albeit a bit of damage to it’s dodgy reputation. The gov will survive.

    The only thing stopping the gov from imposing China-style of great web wall is that we don’t have own own version of facebook, youtube etc for own domestic uses and it does run contrary to the free market ideals the the gov promotes to attract investors.

    No one will care if anyone gets arrested, even our own country men. Our country men only wakes up every morning to smell the notes of cold hard cash and bury their heads like ostriches when shxt hits the fan.


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