Beyond the Govt / Citizen Dichotomy: Our Response to AIMS

BeyondDichotomyAIMS.jpg

UPDATE 1: Now republished on the AIMS blog thanks to Yvonne.

UPDATE 2: Contributor Coleman Yee provides a quick FAQ on our AIMS response.

Free public servants to engage online (TODAY, 20th Sept 2008) UPDATE 3: TODAY newspaper journalist, Alicia Wong, features our e-engagement response paper, after it was kindly mentioned by AIMS chairman Cheong Yip Seng as having “thoughtful, considerate ideas” at a public forum yesterday.

How do we give Political Freedom on the Internet (ZaoBao, 21st Sept 2008) Rules for political films still a hot potato (Straits Times, 20th Sept 2008) UPDATE 4: More media mentions this week, including the Straits Times: “Rules for political films still a hot potato” (20th Sept) and ZaoBao: “How do we give Political Freedom on the Internet” (21st Sept). The latter Chinese news article was kindly (and surprisingly) well-translated by Adri of Popagandhi.com

I’m both glad and amazed that this is finally out!

A few of us decided to give our response to the recent AIMS Consultation Paper advising the Singaporean government on engaging citizens through new media.

The paper below reflects our shared interest in the development of our government’s e-engagement practices. As a collective response from friends in the civil service, academic as well as creative industry, the paper was wonderfully produced on a wiki over a period of one week.

A unique aspect of this paper is the bi-partisan approach we’ve taken in order to be mindful of the various social agencies possibly involved under the e-engagement policy. Notable research findings and case studies are presented to illustrate the viability of our recommendations. Our full response paper to AIMS is available right after the jump…


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Our Response to AIMS Consultation Paper
As concerned individuals, we support the AIMS recommendations on social media engagement, which we believe takes a positive step towards responsible governance and participatory citizenship in Singapore. Here are some of our thoughts on the report and the website for the committee’s consideration:

  1. E-engagement by the Government is Timely
    There are many Singaporeans and Residents who wish to see if they can play a more proactive and constructive role in developing, shaping and influencing public policies. These individuals hail from different professions across the private, people and public sectors, and may include employees in government agencies who are not working in the Corporate Communications capacity. This response paper will present views and recommendations of Government employees, Internet Researchers, as well as Information Architects / Designers, all of whom are actively engaged in the use of social media. In the larger context, this presentation serves as a new form of dialogue made possible by the new media policies currently being explored by AIMS.
  2. Obstacles within Government Communication Policy
    Government employees may wish to voice their personal views on public policies, but are occasionally restrained by the current “Instruction Manual” on public communications. These invaluable personal perspectives would sometimes be more pragmatic than official corporate sentiments; even views contrary to the positions of specific government departments may create a positive and balanced overall effect on policy making. It also has the advantage of gaining an “outsider” (i.e. not within the same Ministry or Statutory Board) perspective, which helps to reduce groupthink and tunnel vision.
    1. An important point to note about government e-engagement is to ensure that there is sufficient bandwidth amongst government Corporate Communication officers (or similar function) to carry out this task. Almost anyone can blog today, from citizens to civil servants, and it may not be feasible or productive to respond to all of them. A streamlined response procedure would be required, so that incumbent agencies can respond in a timely and appropriate manner. Perhaps an 80/20 rule could be developed within each government agency such that responses would only be provided in social media platforms (blogs, forums, social networking sites) with a certain critical number of readers.
    2. Re-think the idea of “Corporate Communications” and who can do so, on behalf of the organization. One possible approach is for the Corporate Communications Department to play a role in training and guiding government employees to leverage on social media communications without compromising on the organisation’s interest.
    3. It would also be useful to consider revising current policies on official communications by government employees such that more of them can engage the public actively in their official or personal capacities. As public officers, they could be entrusted to be the counterbalancing “voice of reason” in the blogosphere without going into histrionics. An example of a government employee speaking in non-official capacity would include this blog discussion about scholarships.
    4. Develop formal and informal channels of public communications. It is often the case that the public is disgruntled not over a failure in public policies but a failure in public communications. Instead of having just a few official feedback channels like REACH, individual government websites could have a feature actively soliciting feedback from policies, programmes or campaigns before they are rolled out.
    5. A concerted effort on the part of all Government agencies is required to provide responses which are not only courteous and tactful, but genuine, honest and sincere. Some form of training in consistent messaging (the substance and not the form) may be required across the whole of government. The public will be particularly sensitive when initially opening themselves up to the Government. They may not want to provide more feedback if they felt that their views were slighted and not respectfully considered the first time around. This happens when officers give a ‘template’ reply and no action is taken thereafter, as sometimes perceived by the grassroots.
    6. Corporate communications departments in the Government tend to place a much higher priority on traditional media communications. Thus, much more time is spent cultivating relationships with journalists and issuing formal press releases while relatively little attention is given to online channels where there can be influential bloggers and forum posters. Given the conversational nature of new/social media, youths tend to spend more time online rather than reading the newspapers. See this PEW Internet Report on “Teens and Social Media Use” (PDF) . Thus, neglecting new media possibilities in official communications may shut out the next generation of Singaporeans.
    7. As our government becomes more media-oriented and savvy, we could learn from the holistic practices engaged in the media industry. Media agency MindShare disbanded its digital unit in order to blend its interactive services with all parts of the company (Apr 17th, 2008). In a larger case study, BBC committed major structural changes to its organisation between 2001 and 2006 (see Figure 1 below). Their organisational structure was simplified, largely because recreating new departments would just create more unnecessary chaos and complexity. In 2006, the BBC underwent a radical restructuring of their organization where BBC director general Mark Thompson once described the term ‘new media’ as an anachronism, saying that “much of what we call ‘new media’ is really present media and it belongs in the main content divisions alongside linear TV and radio”. It wouldn’t be incorrect to assume that the same approach that works for social media adoption at BBC, whatever the future holds, could apply here in Singapore.
    8. BBC radical restructuring (2001 & 2006)
      Figure 1. BBC restructing for “New Media” engagement. Chart remixed by Kevin Lim (April 2008) at https://theory.isthereason.com/?p=2187

  3. Overcoming the Government / Citizen Dichotomy
    One major issue in e-engagement is the overcoming of the “anti-government posture” that has been adopted by most citizens. One explanation for this offered by Arun Mahiznan from IPS is that such efforts have become “propaganda” not intentionally propagated by the government, but by the grassroots itself. This has been largely fueled by well-publicised cases involving political media such as Chee Soon Juan’s activism, firing of TODAY columnist mrbrown, and various street assemblies. Most citizens would have chosen to remain silent, even if they hold valid views on government policies. In essence, we are living the aphorism of “the nail that sticks out the most get hit on the head first”.
  4. Consequence: “Fear” as a citizen’s reflex for being apolitical
    Even though Singapore’s political space appears to be liberalizing both in both online and offline media (though traditional mass media is still more restrictive), the current generation will have a difficult time transitioning into constructive dialogue with the government. Where the government asks students on their thoughts, the general line would be “It doesn’t concern me”. From fear to disaffect, this current generation now refuses to partake in the socio-political process. See “TODAYonline: Reach-ing Out to Gen Y“.
  5. Education as Key to Government/Citizen Relationship
    Rather than focus on the dichotomy of social class (i.e. government vs. citizen), the goal should be to highlight fluid bi-partisan co-operations. In order to encourage responsible citizenry, the government has to visibly demonstrate their ability to listen and act on viable grassroots suggestions.
    1. To balance media reports of citizen engagement in politics, use vicarious examples of — positive reinforcement — to overcome the strong reflex to be negative against the government. For example: Highlight citizen feedback & govt response, viable blogs posts / comments, updates on govt presence on public sites such as Facebook, Hardwarezone. In the case of Yesterday.sg established by the National Heritage Board, inputs from a group of citizen volunteers called the Friends of Yesterday were constantly sought in efforts to improve the heritage and nostalgia blog.
    2. Implement public education programmes on constructive ways to — provide and receive — criticism and feedback. Schools should have mandatory programmes for students. Public programmes for adults could be provided through the Community Clubs, public libraries and related VWOs and NGOs.
    3. Empower and educate civil servants and citizens on the ability to discern between fact and fiction. The viral quality of messages through new media can mislead (e.g. South Korea’s infodemics). Establish an — official government blog — to authenticate responses / alerts to citizen concerns.
    4. While liberalizing the Internet media arguably allows for greater democracy, there is the inherent — danger of under-regulation — in terms of civil protections (see figure 2 below). For instance, online lynch mobs have emerged in larger connected nations such as China and Japan, practicing the use of anonymity to reprehensible ends. Such cases have been reported widely, as seen in The yellow, violent mob culture of a Chinese BBS, CNN: From flash mob to lynch mob and Anti-Tibetian attacks on Chinese student: Grace Wang. Where the incumbent government struggles to remedy these social ills, we have the unique opportunity to prevent such phenomena from happening, by educating citizens in the literacy of Internet culture. For a start, we could show citizens how to spot and prevent cases of cyberbullying, fraud, and identity theft. Great campaigns can be seen at the National Crime Prevention Council (U.S.)

    5. Figure 2. Over & Under-Regulation Venn diagram by Cherian George (2007). As seen at
      http://singaporemedia.blogspot.com/2007/03/one-country-two-systems-for-how-long.html

    Engaging through Existing Community Platforms

  6. Where possible, the government should try to use existing available social media platforms, rather than utilise tax payer’s money in developing more proprietary platforms. Instead of building new communities on new web sites, use pre-existing ones such as on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. This consequently provides a more informal, transparent, level-playing field for grassroots dialogue. Positive examples of online government projects that reflect the above-mentioned qualities include:
    • Singapore Police Force (SPF) in the HardWareZone forum to discuss crime prevention.
    • Govt’s REACH Facebook Group to gather feedback from the existing Singapore community.
    • Singapore-related Wikipedia entries by various govt and grassroots agencies.
  7. Proactive Feedback Approach
    The AIMS committee should be seen to be reaching out proactively and engaging blogging and online communities to seek their feedback. This will mean getting down and dirty (street evangelism as opposed to preaching from a pulpit). Just a mainstream media coverage alone may not give it quality feedback (many online folks don’t read the papers).
  8. Appoint Internet-Literate Ambassadors (e.g. Online NMPs)
    Encourage individuals (e.g. youths) to speak freely and accurately (bi-partisan) about the logic of both government and citizens in the new media space, and be acknowledged by both sides. These “bridge-makers” must be passionate and familiar with both the government’s public policies, as well as the perspectives of the citizens. A good place to start is to look at senior public officers who are already actively blogging.
  9. Benchmarking Singapore’s Regulatory Practices
    If the Singapore government can jointly develop such an e-engagement policy with Singaporeans, it would put Singapore on the map as one of the more progressive countries in Asia when it comes to citizen engagement and liberalisation of media. As it currently stands, Singapore’s Internet Regulation policies are one of the least restrictive, especially in the South-East Asian region. The government could publicize relevant, external academic research such as the OpenNet Initiative: http://www.opennet.net/studies/singapore

  10. Figure 3. The Pathetic Dot model (for understanding Internet Regulation).
    As seen in Lawrence Lessig’s book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999)

  11. How Regulation Works: Working Models / Frameworks
    Suggest using frameworks such as Lawrence Lessig’s Pathetic Dot model (see Figure 3) to illustrate emphasis on different areas to regulating Internet space: Market, Law, Architecture, Norms. Since the NDR speech, legal aspects (Law) of Internet regulation has been downplayed, yet cultural (Norms) possibly remains as apathetic. By designing (Architecture) engagement spaces to be user-centric (allowing users to moderate one another), govt would not have to be the single gatekeeper, but rather rely on the collective population to help regulate one another. The Singapore socio-political blogosphere refers to this as “community moderation”.

Feedback about the AIMS Webpage

  1. The design of the AIMS website leaves room for improvement. There is an extensive use of Flash which doesn’t serve a purpose in terms of design and web standards. The home page too visually cluttered and the use of Flash for a tag cloud just doesn’t work – it should be in HTML instead. Suggest simply using the blog as the home page, since that’s where the latest news would be published.
  2. Do demonstrate the use of Web 2.0 technology, such as RSS, trackbacks, links and widgets, so that AIMS would fulfill its goal of integrating and engaging through the existing social media ecology.
  3. Web design is not web standards compliant, which means information published isn’t easily accessible, shared or resusable by other web services. Perhaps consult web standards user groups such as http://websg.org and http://www.webstandards.org

Credits
This document was produced on 16th September 2008, as a collective effort by academics and government employees (in no particular order):

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The Takeaway
At this point, the Bloggers 13 have done it, we have done it, and now you too should have your say on how you want our government to engage us online. It’s doesn’t have to be too elaborate, as I personally think that a sustained dialogue would be much more valuable. Do give your suggestions to AIMS today!

19 thoughts on “Beyond the Govt / Citizen Dichotomy: Our Response to AIMS

  1. An invitation to bloggers

    Dear Bloggers:

    If you publish opinion articles on current affairs in your blogs, be they of social, economic, or political nature, you are most welcome to repost them in our current affairs forum “Singapore Kopitiam” for discussion and exposure.

    We have daily visitors in the order of a few thousands. The daily number of pages viewed has exceeded 20,000. Any article reposted in Singapore Kopitiam will gain you instant exposure to a few thousands more readers. You can get instant feedback to your opinions and views expressed. You can also join the debate and clarify your thoughts.

    Since Sammyboy.com’s Alfresco Coffee Shop was unplugged on 6 August 2008, Singapore Kopitiam has stepped in to replace it and to provide a cyber kopitiam for netizens (both Singaporeans and ex-Singaporeans) to meet, exchange ideas/opinions, and discuss any thing and every thing under the sun. It does provide an important link to the blogosphere community where public opinions are shaped and refined.

    There is no waiting period for you to register an online moniker and to start posting your articles. In the spirit of free speech, there is no censorship or moderation.

    Why don’t you give it a try today? You would be surprised how effective it can be to reach out to your next few thousands readers, as many bloggers already discovered!

    Regards
    Singapore Kopitiam
    http://forums.delphiforums.com/sunkopitiam/messages/

  2. Thanks Zheng Xi. We’ll know if this has worked only if we receive an encouraging response from the government. [FYI: I’ve edited this comment for brevity]

  3. Hi Kevin, the collaborative process was amazing. It started with a few suggestions on possible responses. Then became a google document. And then mutiple concurrent edits at several instances (which was confusing for a while). Not to mention email commentaries. Good thing you volunteered to tidy up the draft (which was excellent, btw). And then we edited it some more (oh, it wouldn’t have ended until someone had to bring down the iron-hand lol). All was unplanned, with no assigned team leader or even call for action. Everyone just chipped in. And along the way I learned how to use Google document better, discovering the “add comment” and “view/ track edit history” features.

    Ivan Chews last blog post..Two guys and their reading list in 2007

  4. I enjoyed the process as much as you. I’ve been writing solo especially for my dissertation, so it’s pretty darn nice to co-author papers together in a free-spirited way. I’m really glad I got to know friends like you *inappropriate wink*

  5. This is a great effort Kevin and rest of the media scientist. I hope AIMS weaves some of your recommendations into their proposal to our govt.

    I especially appreciate the care and attention as to how this proposal did not marginalized the anonymous bloggers, readers and posters market segment by requiring them surrender their right to privacy if they wanted to participate in the whole process.

    This was one reason why I did not support the blogger 13 proposal. The cost of participating required one to surrender a right. I felt this requirement did not adequately respect or even recognize our rights to privacy and it certainly had the effect of alienating rather than uniting the sg internet community.

    But this proposal hits all the right keys. Once again great effort guys and gals. Kudos!

  6. The UPDATE 1 link seems like it is down. Did AIMS remove that link?
    (Twitter-lite): Holy Crap, they are playing “Groovy kind of love” on the radio… Ah…

  7. Fascinating post Kevin. This is an amazing process. Wish I was in Singapore right now. I know what I would be doing at this very minute… photographing the closing stages of the International Coastal Cleanup with Siva, the Toddycats and the 3000 other volunteers. That is what I love about blogging and connectedness in Singapore. The outputs are real and measurable.
    Cheers, John.

  8. I00I: Judging from the public forum two days ago, it appears that AIMS does find it constructive. Part of this initiative is to demonstrate that we as Singaporean citizens can and should participate in the political process.

    mrbiglive: Thanks. I’ve struck out the link. I wouldn’t worry about it though; give it time. Understandably we’re treading new ground here, so once the dust has settled, more bloggers will feel safe enough to participate in these issues.

    John Larkin: Thanks John. You’re right about the measurable outcomes. We’re starting to see that and I’m optimistic that the once grey areas will soon be defined clearer.

  9. Good job! I first learned of your paper when Mr Cheong Yip Seng mentioned it at the AIMS Public Forum.

    After the Public Forum, I chatted with a couple of the AIMS council and secretariat members and shared with them my efforts at “real” and “electronic” engagement over this piece of legislation called Land Titles (Strata) Act.

    Whilst I have been fortunate in receiving telephone responses from MinLaw with meaningful verbal discussions and a smattering of minor suggestions that were implemented, I get the feeling that there is less openness and commitment for the more substantive issues.

    http://www.singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com

    The Pariahs last blog post..So what’s the alternative in the END?

  10. In this Govt/Citizen dichotomy, I don’t envy the plight of our civil servants at the receiving end of more brickbats than bouquets.

    So let me share an instance where my citizenry gabbing was a hugely positive experience!

    Arising from the 2006/07 en bloc frenzy, I decided to check-out alternatives in case one of the incessant attempts succeeds. That was how I ended up attending numerous property soft launches. That was also how I observed (i) the excessive provision of balconies, planter boxes and bay windows which were charged at $3000/psf in D9-10-11 and (ii) the dominant use of wall curtain glass facades in these new condos in our tropical climate.

    Over the course of 1 year … after giving grief to:
    – URA (for Gross Floor Area exemption and Net Saleable Area computation);
    – NParks (for a well-meaning but ineffective Skyrise Greenery policy); and
    – BCA (for operating a Greenmarks Scheme),
    the URA policies were eventually finetuned to eliminate such GFA exemption for planters and bay windows. Also, BCA commissioned a NUS study to establish the standards for RETV (Residential Envelope Transmittance Value) for wall claddings.

    Whilst I’m not privy to whether URA/BCA were already latched onto these same concerns that I had one year ago and I do not know if many other citizens also voiced similar concerns for the past year, I felt a personal sense of having “made a difference” as an ordinary citizen.

    So to all who are (or were) skeptical of my continual efforts in engaging the govt on policies which affect our lives, I’d like to say: Don’t give up because they do listen (sometimes)!

    http://www.singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com

    The Pariahs last blog post..So what’s the alternative in the END?

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