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President Obama’s “Race to the Top” and What It Teaches Us about Social Participatory Governance

Tanya Gupta's picture

Earlier this year, the White House and the Department of Education announced the Race to the Top High School Commencement competition.  They invited public schools across the US to compete to have President Obama speak at their graduation.  In addition to the essay responses, applicants were encouraged to include materials like a video showing the school’s culture and character and data on key indicators such as attendance, and student achievement.  Six finalists were selected by the White House and Department of Education. The schools were then featured on the White House website and the public voted for the three schools they felt best meet the President’s goal, on the White House blog.  The three finalists included Clark Montessori Jr. & Sr. High School in Cincinnati, OH, Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, MI, and Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver, CO.  On May 4, the President selected Kalamazoo Central High School as the winner from these three finalists.  He will visit the winning high school to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2010.

Although this is not an example of participatory governance, this was a great demonstration of how ICT enabled participatory governance processes could work.  Participatory governance can be defined as institutional processes that allow citizens to participate in decision-making processes through voting, or in similar ways, and exercise voice.  Ideally this would result in the state implementing policies that would better reflect the needs of its citizens. The idea behind the promotion of participatory governance is that it adds value to a representative democracy.  Participatory governance depends on the capacity of the state to support participatory processes, on sufficient and sustained interest on the part of its citizenry in participation, and on a certain minimum level of economic and social development (pdf). 

This particular use of “social participatory governance” if I can coin a word, was very well done (assuming social tools are a subset of ICTs).  First, the issue that was chosen was relatively simple - people were asked to choose one school, out of a list of three, based on certain information.  The White House also had the infrastructure and overall capability needed to implement the final outcome.  Participants were educated so that they understood the choice they had to make.  They were also sufficiently well off so that their “votes” were not susceptible to capture by organized groups and special interests.  The stakeholders appeared to have equal access to the technology and tools they needed.  From a technology standpoint, social networks were used, like this Facebook page, and announcements on Twitter and YouTube to get the message out, while the actual voting took place on a secure White House website.  In summary to get social participatory governance right – select an issue where a decision is simple, that the State is able to support and implement, ensure that the participants are able to understand the facts and choose wisely, are interested in participating, and have equal access to the technology and tools that they need. 

The idea of participatory governance is probably as old as the idea of democracy.  However, before the age of Internet, its scope was limited mostly to local governance as it was not possible to scale up.  With the advent of the Internet, it became possible to support the application of participatory methods to national and global governance.   The biggest challenge then is to understand the theory of participatory development and then on that basis, make the appropriate ICT selection.  The paper “Triumph, Deficit of Contestation? Deepening the 'Deepening Democracy' Debate” written by John Gaventa at the Institute of Development Studies talks about four broad approaches to deepening democracy - 'civil society' democracy, participatory democracy, deliberative democracy and empowered participatory governance. 

In this context, which approach to democracy would find the best fit for ICTs? What forms of ICTs are best suited for participatory governance in general?  Which ones what would be the best strategy in weak states, in countries ravaged by conflict or natural disasters, in fragile states? Which ones should be used in countries with weak civil society presence? The answers to these question would affect the ICT implementation strategy,  For example, take an ‘empowered participatory governance’ orientation - which is based on principles of bottom-up participation, starting with a pragmatic orientation to solve concrete problems and  fosters deliberation in which ‘participants listen to each other’s positions and generate group choices after due consideration’ (A. Fung 2001).  Obviously the ICT tools used to support this kind of an approach would need to be specific to this approach.  

More work is needed to define the concept of participation in the given social and political context before we can answer the questions posed above.  Only when we have done so, will we be able to develop a map of ICT tools and the different governance contexts that they could be best applied to.  In general, perhaps it would be a good idea to start small and not be too ambitious while venturing into ICT-based participatory governance. For example, the first initiative in this area should probably not be elections.  Instead it may be a better idea to find where some demand already exists and try to enable that.  In conflict environments, for example, it may be worthwhile finding out what participatory strategies are already being used and to see which forms of ICTs could be best used for processes of peace building and reconstruction. However the dangers of using ICTs in participatory governance exist, and should be accounted for. There may be an assumption of literacy and access to ICTs, and pitfalls when it comes to privacy issues. Governments have a special role in ensuring that they have sufficient distance from commercial entities (arm’s length), protect privacy, encourage and ensure equal access to technology, and maintain freedom of information on the internet. 


Submitted by TrendWatcher on
A much better example of “social participatory governance” is the Facebook campaign for actress Betty White to host Saturday Night Live on NBC TV channel. Unlike "Race to the top", this is a truely bottom-up initiative which used grass-root voting to influence decision making at the top.

Submitted by Tanya G on
Thanks for the comment Trendwatcher. I enjoyed watching the process of Betty White's "nomination" to SNL as well. President Obama's "Race to the Top Commencement challenge", however is *not* governance in action, rather the challenge incorporates processes that could be models for "social participatory governance". Good governance is a combination of bottom-up and top-down collaboration and ideally would not be 100% bottom-up. There are a number of good arguments why this should be so, including the fact that expertise may be needed that may not be easily available or possible to use in a purely public debate, intense and prolonged reviews could be warranted, or accountability may be weak when all are responsible, Finally - a strategic vision that ties in all the elements is quite important and would be absent in a purely crowdsourcing environment.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Good one!

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