First 100 Days: Harness the genie of citizen engagement

February 10, 2009

dontapscottheadshotDon Tapscott is chairman of the think tank nGenera Insight and the author of 13 books on the impact of the Internet on society. His latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World, discusses the Obama campaign and its implications for democracy. The views expressed are his own.

When President Obama announced last month that he’ll ask ordinary Americans to help him change America, it didn’t take long for the influencers inside the Washington beltway to ring the alarm: What happens if ordinary Americans actually come up with some new ideas to run government? Will things get out of control? Will they become bullies who will force Obama and Congressional lawmakers to bend to their will?

To me, they sound a lot like the traditional marketers who are worried that they’re losing control over their brand. Both marketers and lawmakers are struggling to adjust to a digital world where consumers and voters now have powerful tools to talk back, and even influence the brand or the policy. So let me give the Washington lawmakers the same message I have delivered to the marketers: Let go. You can’t control everything. The genie has slipped out of the bottle and she’s not coming back. And I think this is a really good thing.

For far too long, we’ve been living in what I’ve called a broadcast democracy. Voters only count during election time. They have little or no influence in between elections, when the lawmakers and influencers are in charge and citizenry is inert. The “you vote, I rule” model was all that was possible, until recently.

What the system has lacked until now are mechanisms enabling government to benefit from the wisdom and insight that a nation can collectively offer — on an ongoing basis. I’m not proposing some kind of direct democracy, where citizens can vote every night on the evening news or Web sites. That would be tantamount to a digital mob.

What I am proposing is a way to allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process – to get them engaged in public life. When citizens become active, good things can happen. We all learn from each other. Initiatives get catalyzed. People become active in improving their communities, country and the world.
This is long overdue. These days, the policy specialists and advisers on the public-sector payroll can barely keep pace with defining the problems, let alone craft the solutions. Government can’t begin to amass the in-house expertise to deal with the myriad challenges that arise. Governments need to create opportunities for sustained dialogue between voters and the elected.

Courtesy of the Internet, public officials can now solicit citizen input at almost no cost, by providing Web-based background information, online discussion, and feedback mechanisms. Government can now involve citizens in setting the policy agenda, which can then be refined on an ongoing basis. Such activity engages and mobilizes citizens, catalyzing real-life initiatives in communities and society as a whole.

When Obama launched Organizing for America, his dialogue with citizens, the idea was to channel the unprecedented grassroots campaign that propelled him to victory into the hard business of changing America. Organizing for America will “talk about and work on the pressing issues facing the country,” said Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe. Obama “believes in grassroots politics,” said Organizing for America’s executive director Mitch Stewart. “He’s going to be your partner. He’s going to listen.”

The first test of the idea came at the weekend, when thousands of meetings of Obama supporters took place across the country. What’s not clear yet is how the president intends to use the Internet to tap into the public’s thinking.

There are lots of Internet-enabled ways to engage America, from policy wikis, citizen juries, deliberative polling, ideation contests, and virtual town halls. I call one of the most promising the digital brainstorm. This is an online way to bring together policy officials and citizens in a real-time, moderated session, to exchange ideas and identify new policy issues and strategies and to mobilize the citizenry.

Here’s how it would work. The president would say, “We’re going to have a national discussion on revitalizing our cities. It starts on Monday at noon and ends the same week on Friday at noon. Anyone can participate through the Web 2.0 discussion community we’ve set up. If you don’t have Internet access, I’ve partnered with corporations, schools, libraries, community computing centers, and shopping malls to give you access. We’ll post background papers. We’ll organize the discussion by region and also by interest groups. There’ll be a business discussion, a discussion of public transit users, and so on. As you participate in the discussion rate the ideas that you come across and the best ideas will rise to the top. I’ll participate daily and give my views. At the end of the process we’ll explore our options for further action.”

The goal is to have a conversation in which people become engaged in political life; think about issues; get active in improving their communities; and mobilize society for positive change. Politicians and citizens alike would become more informed and learn from each other. And collectively we would take a step away from broadcast and toward participatory democracy. As an exercise in government 2.0, it could show that power can be exercised through people, not over people.

I’m currently working with government leaders in several countries to conduct brainstorms of all their citizens. Interestingly, the main topic of choice is climate change, using a question such as “How could our country more effectively contribute to the fight against global warming?” or “How could we reduce carbon emissions in our country?”

If Obama really wants to change America, he should hold digital brainstorms for all Americans, and he should make sure the young people – the Net Geners who have grown up digital – are involved. He’ll need a social movement of young people to bring about real change. This can only happen in public – not through backroom negotiations. Only through open struggle and conflict can a real and lasting change take place.

You can follow Don Tapscott on Twitter @dtapscott


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The ideas on Obama’s own website during the campaign regarding technology were more visionay than this

Posted by Ed Porter | Report as abusive

Its about time that the citizens have an opportunity to voice their views, opinions, and possible solutions. It falls into the idea that more heads are better than fewer. If we have the population lending a hand with decision making, we will arrive at better solutions in less time, then leaving more time to act on the solutions. A good example is getting the pulse of the public’s general feel for how we are reacting to the down economy. Just knowing the public demeanor and involving the public would be a great way to find our way out of this economic mess. Why stop there, get the opinion of peoples of other countries and see how their opinions differ or are the same as ours. Government 2.0 is a good evolution of society.

Posted by Emanuel | Report as abusive

I think this is a great idea. As a Senior Citizen and retired, I spend more time and concern than at any time during my life thinking and contemplating about current events and especially what is going to be done with all the money proposed for the Stim plan. I fancy myself a wildlife photo journalist and spend a lot of time in the woods near my home,where I see a lot of projects that would help to protect the natural beautiful arena of river shore lines and parks. The areas I travel offer wonderment and enjoyment. If an internet interface vehicle for communiting with those responsible for the distribution of some of the stimulus assets, I would seek their assistance in funding a few projects that would benifit all of us and help the environment and various creatures that share the space with us. It is only a dream, but it is fun to think that a real live person with responsibility just might want to ask some questions about the idea.

Posted by D.D. Peace | Report as abusive

If you give a man a fish – you feed him for a day: If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime (provided Global warming doesn’t kill all the fish).
Point is – America has now come out of the dark ages (Bush era) and into the Light (Obama era) with more participative government and expanded the use of the internet to engage American’s and “let them think they are contributing ideas and better suggestions than typical politicians”. The real slow down to a more engaged government is the insane levels of bureaucracy that exists to get anything done. So the Amercian people must do a “work around” the government. Just start posting and collaborating on the best ideas for the country and thanks to guys like Dan Tapscott (who can sound the horn and get folks motivated) we the people can MAKE the CHANGE HAPPEN. WE can go around the government and actually start the new businesses and act upon the best ideas without even using a politician. The politicians are useless.. mindless.. money grubbing scumb that only care about their next big fundraiser or speical interest. America is corrupt and Big Business runs the show (Congress) so the less “We the People” think that govt is going to actually do something the better and faster America can get itself out of this depression. We need to think and create our own jobs and industry (services) and change the way we buy energy. WE need to support electric cars and conserve everywhere we can in order to make it through the depression.
And yes this is a depression and the sooner we accept that and change our attitude about it the faster we can move on and pick ourselves up , dust ourselves off and start over again.

Well, a “digital brainstorm” is certainly a better use of the internet than the shopworn tack of assembling a list of “Most Popular” articles, which can only instruct the next generation that Paris is a sexpot, not a city-state…

Posted by Liz R | Report as abusive

Men of power are quite reticent to relinquish their power once they have it. Marijuana was a threat to their power because it opened up the American psyche to new viewpoints. The internet has done the same. Their reaction to marijuana was to make it illegal and imprison anyone associated with it. That’s why today, the U.S. has the proud distinction of having only 5% of the world’s population, but imprisons 25% of the world’s prisoners. Half of these are non-violent drug offenders, free thinking men and women. If you think that they can’t or won’t shut it all down, think again. SWAT teams are becoming more active. The U.S. has more law enforcement than any nation on earth and the numbers are growing. Prosecutors develop thier careers on convictions, guilty or innocent, based on just laws or unjust laws, it doesn’t matter. Internet laws are growing exponentially, with vague definitions, lending themselves to very wide interpretations by prosecutors and judges. The disease of J. Edgar Hoover is spreading across this country. When they get a search warrent to go into your house because of some suspicion, you will be guilty by default. There won’t be a thing you can do about it. This has been happening all across this country and appears to be getting worse, creating fear in everyone, albeit more unconscious at present. The mainstream press downplays the extent of the problem. There is no public protest as the Bill of Rights is shredded. I don’t see a new form of government on the horizon, but rather, an old form, called fascism. History tends to repeat itself, and unfortunately, we are the pawns of history.

Posted by Jeffrey Gray | Report as abusive

The Borgen Project has some good info on the cost of addressing global poverty.

$30 billion: Annual shortfall to end world hunger.
$550 billion: U.S. Defense budget

I am really happy Obama is president, but I do wish he allowed more of the public to make the decisions. I think he will do just fine though.