Digital participation to ensure participatory democracy

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Digital democracy is the catch word nowadays. This entails the word digital participation.

The question in front of us is whether the use of digital participation could be beneficial in governance? And whether it would support freedom of expression through informed decision making? And whether it is possible to support governance for democratic change through the use of modern social media? The answer to the question is a tricky yes and no. It is quite possible and the people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are pretty social media savvy. The problem therein lies in the reach of the Internet connectivity and more importantly in the traditional culture of knowing through more direct means, like posters, billboards, and traditional media like social meeting places and mosques.

There is but a rising number of youth who prefer knowing about the world around them through Internet. Free Facebook initiative has given the youth an opportunity to remain globally connected. There are other media like twitter and Instagram that could be used, but these are not very common in Pakistan. Free Facebook has taken the lead. Your Internet balance, especially mobile date usage, won’t be used while using Facebook. Now the problem of strategizing public information in a manner that it switches from the traditional to the modern is still there. But this is not an unsurmountable problem. We are at a place in our history today where little effort is needed to digitalize our message reception among the masses. But the trick is that we need to develop a transitional strategy. First, the traditional poster, billboard, brochure, should be used along with the media of mass communication to bring useful information to the people. Information that could support the people’s right to information in a manner that they get the needed knowledge to perform their civic duty of making informed decisions to ensure participatory democracy.

As far as the mass media is concerned we need to understand that simply throwing the advertisements into the media won’t do. There should be informative content in the media about the issues that are being advertised. And this is no favor. The government advertisements to the media are out of the tax payers’ pockets. Now, to be qualified for these, the only logical reason could be that the media is supposed to be supported to do public service. And this support, indeed, is offered to in the name of democracy, in the name of governance support. It is, thus, the responsibility of the media to bring in content that adds to the people’s knowledge of governance. The argument that the press is there to criticize is valid, but we need to know what criticism means. It is a candid evaluation of any situation. And if the media considers the government as an enemy, they shouldn’t take any advertisements from it. Getting people’s money out of the public exchequer and then doing nothing to support the people’s right to know in a way that they could understand the system of governance is wrong, unethical, and unprofessional.

As for the nature of the public information content, it is meant to be information about what government is offering and how could it be beneficial for the people. The use of public facilities offered by the government is one good way of ensuring public participation. The government could get into collaboration with the educational and other youth institutions to develop a culture of information dissemination in the realm of governance. This will ensure trust building and will also pave the way to digital participation. The youth is already into digital participation at many societal levels. They are but not into governance participation. The reason is simple. The government has neither prioritized nor did it ever strategized the youth’s digital participation. The small time Facebook pages with some twenty likes won’t do! Neither would it be accomplished through boring websites with government insignia. This is one-way traffic. The government with its huge insignia telling the people what it is doing and what it expects the public to do. It seems autocratic. Or not democratic, to be euphemistic.

There is need to encourage youth innovatory participation in the process of governance through digital participation. The messages from the media products that are in tune with governance and public participation into it, could be broken up in attractive and meaningful messages to be offered to the public. These pithy messages could be shared with the public on social media, WhatsApp groups, routine messaging, and other possible forums. This practice could be the beginning of a process to trigger public discourse on governance. Since the idea of public participation is rooted in the feedback mechanism, it will only be successful if the public response is measured by the government’s information managers. It is the duty of the responsible information related officials to inform the public officials about people’s feedback to the information shared through the digital platforms. This feedback should be properly packaged that it could be given to the responsible government officials through Intranet while with specific messaging to the relevant departments or the relevant officials. Policy changes or adjustments should be made in the light of the public response, and this process should be made visible on the same social media platforms from which the feedback was gathered. Once this cycle is completed the public trust would be on the way to restoration. Giving knowledge to people without following up on their feedback is a public information and relations disaster. This should be avoided at all costs. As the saying goes, “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”! And vigilance is not the function of the public, the government has to be on its toes, too, to know how people are taking its initiatives. This is the very logic behind information and public relations set ups within every government. Government of KP is no exception.

The journey from traditional information system to a digital participatory system is not a difficult one. The only thing that is needed to be done is to enhance digital access. To achieve the aim, the government needs to support the people’s right to digital access. Closing digital platforms or strangling people’s voices will add to the trust deficit between the government and the people, especially youth. The digitalization process is unstoppable. Instead of standing on the wrong side of history the government of KP (and everywhere) could become a good partner in the development of a healthy platform for digital participation. It is cheap, it is fun, and it is effective. Not making good use of it would be the mistake of the millennium. I am sure no government would like to make such a gross mistake.