We each covered a different aspect of what it means for public-facing institutions to engage using new technologies. I kicked it off with an overview of what the new, citizen-centric world looks like (based on work that I have been doing with John Creighton) and went through a few very basic examples to get people’s ideas flowing.
I purposefully did not go into social media, as that was being covered by Joe. David led a lively discussion about the use of keypad technology in face-to-face meetings.
Our starting point was a comment that I heard at last week’s working session so social media and community benefit organizations, which was organized by the National Conference on Citizenship, the Case Foundation, and PACE. At this working session, Scott Heiferman, founder of MeetUp.com, said this:
“You know how all these organizations have links to their Twitter and Facebook accounts? Most of them say ‘connect with us.’ But why would I want to do that, and why do you want people to ‘connect’ with you? That still sees your organization as the mothership. Get people to connect to each other somehow.”
This prompted John and I to think about the whole notion of an institution wanting to “connect” with its public — and just how hard it is to take yourself out of the equation and get people connecting with one another. For an institution, this may be the toughest discipline of all.
Recently two Australian girls trapped in a storm drain in Adelaide chose to update their Facebook statuses with please for help rather than dial the local equivalent of 911. This has local officials worried, according to a spokesperson in the ABC News article:
“If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”
This is a good example of what John Creighton and I see as a shift from an institution-centric world to a citizen-centric world. Public leaders can no longer expect citizens to act in ways that are convenient to instituions. Citizens instead expect institutions to conform to their needs.
However, not many public institutions have caught up to this fact. So, for example, the Adelaide, Australian emergency services office is “worried” that the girls did not use the right phone number.
It may be that, instead, citizens ought to be worried that the emergency services office has no way of monitoring a communications channel that is increasingly ubiquitous.
Indeed, the channel is so ubiquitous that citizens are forced to create workarounds to compensate for the failings of the official mechanism, as in this episode of which social media news site Mashable reminds us:
[I]n Atlanta, Georgia in May 2009, a councilman was concerned that his cellphone battery would be flat by the time a 911 call connected. Instead, he Tweeted: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson st. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet”.
This is one example of room for improvement when it comes to public instituions. Instead of trying to “educate” citizens to use the “correct” means of calling for help, perhaps public leaders ought to devote efforts to making sure there is a listening mechanism set up across the spectrum of daily-use communications platforms, not just one.
My friend John Creighton and I have been talking about the shift in public life from an “institution centric” world to a “citizen centric” world. People no longer organize their lives and activities for the convenience of institutions, instead, they expect institutions to conform to their expectations.
In this context, we propose that the notion of “civic engagement,” while worthy, is the wrong way for public leaders to think about how their organizations can interact with people. “Engagement” still presupposes that it is the institution doing the engaging.
My friend John Creighton and I have been discussing and writing about a shift that has taken place from an “institution-centric” world to a “citizen-centric” world. The question for public leaders is how to respond to this new ecosystem. We are creating videos about a number of different aspects to this question, and also working on some other materials that we’ll tell you about when they’re ready.
In our last video, we made the case that public leaders have to respond to new realities in public life. In our latest video, we discuss some of the pitfalls that can arise when public leaders set about engaging with citizens:
Bottom line is that, unless an organization changes how it approaches the people it serves (so they aren’t just “voters” or “clients” but instead are “partners” or “citizens” who make choices on their own) — the tried-and-true engagement methods will fall flat. Public leaders will work as hard or harder than ever at engaging people, but unless it is in sync with the fact that citizens no longer need institutions to hold “gatekeeper” roles, it can be very frustrating for staff and public alike.
We’ll be posting many more conversations like this one as time goes on, so stay tuned! Your comments are welcome.
John Creighton and I have been thinking a lot about a big shift that’s been happening over the last 20 years. It’s a shift that’s been happening everywhere, but it is having a big impact in our public life. This is the shift from a world ruled by institutions to a world where individual people are at the center of life. We’re going to talk about a few different aspects of this idea in a series of conversations. This is the first. Here’s the video:
Here is one facet of this shift. The expectation in the past has been that institutions will do things for people. The new expectation is that individuals or citizens will do things for themselves. These changes mean public leaders have to start playing new roles. If institutions have to adapt to this change, that means their leaders have to as well. So what is the role of a public leader?
All of this leads to a set of questions that public leaders and institutional executives must deal with. There aren’t clear or easy answers.
For instance, in an era of citizen-centric power.
What are the important roles for public leaders? In what ways should public leaders seek to influence, shape and guide public institutions?
How should public institutions change their relationship with the public? If the role of the institution is not to do things for people, what is it?
Should institutional executives be giving more time and attention to figuring out how to support people to make decisions and do things for themselves?
And, there is room to really examine what the role is of institutions overall. There may be some institutions, in the current formation, that no longer serve an essential purpose.
That’s hard for anyone to confront. Organizations like people have a survival instinct. Leaders and executives tend to try to protect an institution’s survival at all costs.
Public leaders who are effective in a citizen-centric society must rise above survival instincts.
That’s not easy for anyone to do. We should strive to support public leaders who try.
(The text of this post is based in part on notes that John Creighton shared with me as we prepared for this conversation.)