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Not by Technology Alone: the 'Analog' Aspects of Online Public Engagement in Policymaking


DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2014.01.001

Epstein, D., et al., Not by technology alone: The “analog” aspects of online public engagement in policymaking, Government Information Quarterly (2014)

p.1: Between Twitter revolutions and Facebook elections, there is a growing belief that information and communication technologies are changing the way democracy is practiced. The discourse around e-government and online deliberation is frequently focused on technical solutions and based in the belief that if you build it correctly they will come. This paper departs from the literature on digital divide to examine barriers to online civic participation in policy deliberation. While most scholarship focuses on identifying and describing those barriers, this study offers an in-depth analysis of what it takes to address them using a particular case study. Based in the tradition of action research, this paper focuses on analysis of practices that evolved in Regulation Room—a research project of CeRI (Cornell eRulemaking Initiative) that works with federal government agencies in helping them engage public in complex policymaking processes. It draws a multidimensional picture of motivation, skill, and general political participation divides; or the “analog” aspects of the digital divide in online civic participation and policy deliberation. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.1: Some note that adoption of information technologies by government institutions changes their character and their organizational arrangements (Fountain, 2009; Margetts, 2009). Yet others view the Internet as altering the polity itself by shifting power from the center of the communication network to its edges (Mueller, 2010) and by enabling a better informed (Hardy, Hall Jamieson, & Winneg, 2009; Reedy & Wells, 2009) and a more engaged public (Brundidge & Rice, 2009). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.1: Using the lens of scholarship about the digital divide, this paper explains how various aspects of online civic deliberation are addressed through design decisions with deliberate care and focused attention on the needs of users who are unfamiliar with the complex process in which they are operating, unsure of every step they are taking, and often skeptical that the value of their participation is worth the effort they put into it. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

Civic participation and the digital divide

p.2: When translated into policy, this dichotomous thinking often takes the form of fundamental technocratic optimism with an action focus on physical access to technology. Thus, early policy responses to the digital divide were focused on providing computers and Internet connection to the have-nots, with the implied notion that once available, the technologyw ould be put to positive and productive uses spurring political, economic, and social progress (Epstein, Nisbet,& Gillespie, 2011). More recently, emphasis has shifted to the quality of the connection, as the policy focus has become expanding broadband access (Kruger & Gilroy, 2012). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: Over the years, the discourse about the digital divide has expanded beyond “first-level” divide issues, which focused on access to technology and the associated socio-demographic causes, to include factors such as motivation and Internet skills (Min, 2010). This focus on the “second-level” divide brought the technocratic view of information technology and the causal relationship between adoption of technology and social outcomes under increasing scrutiny. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: Some also challenged the attention to access as determinist, utopian, and naïve, warning that the evident demographic disparities have to do with more than just the presence or absence of the technology, and do not simply disappear as information and communication technologies (ICTs) become more ubiquitous (Gunkel, 2003; van Dijk, 2006). Others have attempted to link the digital divide to the larger forces that perpetuate resource disparities: some see the digital divide as an element of political and economic development (Norris, 2001; Pohjola, 2001; Warschauer, 2003), while others see it as a product of cultural imperialism (Chomsky, 2004), Westernization (Schiller, 1992), or an emerging power block within the information industry (Chomsky, 2004; Schiller, 1992). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: Specifically in the area of civic engagement in political processes and e-government, dichotomous digital divide thinking of information “haves” vs. “have-nots” lent itself to the “if you build it, they will come” mindset primarily among policymakers (e.g. Chen & Dimitrova, 2006). In other words, given the right technological tools, members of the public will engage in political processes, and they will do so in a meaningful way (Macintosh, 2004; Reddick, 2005). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: While an informed public is an important component in a democratic society, consuming information does not necessarily translate to people effectively engaging or interacting with the government online. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: For example, the PEW report states that “participators tend to be somewhat more educated and affluent than the online population as a whole” (p.32); moreover, the group of citizens engaged online “is more heavily composed of whites” compared to other racial groups (p.33). In other words, the digital divide can be viewed as amplifying the dynamics where the powerful are becoming more powerful and the politically weak are becoming weaker. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: These discrepancies between the democratic promise of the Internet and the mixed results on the ground suggest that a more nuanced story about the digital divide and online civic engagement needs to be constructed. van Dijk (2005), for example, speaks about the digital divide as an assembly of different kinds of accesses, each shaping and at the same time being shaped by the other. Specifically, he identifies motivational access, material access, skills access, and usage access—all positioned within social, political and economic context, and continuously interacting with the characteristics of technology. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.2: DiMaggio et al. allude to the reflection of social disparities in the digital divide when viewed through the lens of skills. Thus, they demonstrate that those belonging to higher socio-economic strata are more likely to engage in capital enhancing activities, compared to those belonging to the lower socio-economic strata. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: In other words, the digital divide lens may suggest that technology amplifies already existing discrepancies in power. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: Norris (2001) refers specifically to the link between understanding political processes, democracy, and the digital divide. She emphasizes the role of social structures in mediating political activity and of information technology as a mechanism that can reify or challenge those structures. Groups that are traditionally marginalized in political discourse are more likely to be marginalized in the online political discourse as well; the power relations of the offline world are typically transferred online as well. Specifically for online civic engagement with policymaking processes, a lack of understanding of those processes and their “rules of engagement” can be a significant barrier to broad public participation. Lack of knowledge about the appropriate nature and forum means of participation in the policymaking activities adds another layer to the technology-based divide. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

CeRI and Regulation Room

p.3: CeRI (Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative) is a multidisciplinary group of researchers from communications, computing, conflict resolution, information science, and law who work in active partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and other federal agencies. The project's core is an experimental online public participation platform, Regulation Room, which offers selected live rulemakings and other policy discussions. Research on Regulation Room is motivated by the belief that broad public participation in deliberative democratic processes, such as rulemaking and similar kinds of complex government policymaking, is beneficial for stronger democracy. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: On the surface, the rulemaking process appears to be a prime opportunity for widespread direct public participation in government policymaking. In reality, however, it is dominated by large industry actors whose lawyers compose complex and sophisticated comments. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: The “build it and they will come” approach does not necessarily work in this case, because the barriers to participation are only partially technological (although technology can help addressing them). In fact, the technical and the non-technical barriers to participation may reinforce each other: Even when the technology is at hand, effective participation in this process is not entirely straightforward, nor is it easily comparable to other government processes that most individuals are already familiar with (e.g. receiving government services online). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: The design and operating protocols of Regulation Room are premised on a particular understanding of what “the people” can add to rulemaking—i.e., information about impacts, ambiguities and gaps, enforceability, contributory causes, unintended consequences, etc. that is known by participants because of their lived experience in the complex reality into which the proposed regulation would be introduced (Farina, Epstein, Heidt, & Newhart, 2012). This “situated knowledge” is first-hand knowledge that the agency may not possess, and that organizations purporting to represent these commenters may not reveal at all, or do not convey in sufficient detail. The Regulation Room project team therefore focused on increasing participation by individuals and small private or public entitieswhowould be directly affected (either being regulated by or benefiting from the agency's proposal) but who, based on historical participation patterns, are unlikely to engage in the conventional comment process. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: The initial working hypothesis for Regulation Room was that individuals and small entities do not participate because they: (1) are unaware of rulemakings that would affect them; (2) are unfamiliar with how to participate effectively in the process; and (3) would be overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of rulemaking materials. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

Regulation Room through the digital divide lens

p.4: As van Dijk describes, the first phase of access is a preliminary condition of all other phases. The motivation of potential users to adopt, acquire, learn and use these technologies cannot be taken for granted. Even if an individual has the sufficient material resources they must have time and for some participants, time can be the most important resource that is scarce (van Dijk, 2005). To have themotivation theremust be a tangible benefit for individuals to invest their time and efforts in commenting on a proposed rule. Contrary to the “build it and they will come” approach, making the rulemaking documents available and allowing for submission of comments online does not inevitably generate broader public participation. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.4: Over time, targeting those members of potentially affected communities who were already on the more sophisticated end of the spectrum in terms Internet access and skills, but often lacked the motivation to use the web as a tool for government participation, appear to have been successful, particularly in the EOBR rule, where two of the top sources of referral traffic to the site were Facebook and Twitter. DiMaggio et.al. and van Dijk observe that one of the greatest predictors of whether an individual will have Internet access and skills and will use them for “capital-enhancing” purposes is whether or not the individual's friends, relatives, and coworkers have adopted similar uses of the Internet (DiMaggio et al., 2004; van Dijk, 2005). In their rulemaking outreach strategies, the project team used social media to increase motivational access by reaching out directly to members of potentially affected communities who were already part of an Internet community and by encouraging those individuals to share the information with other members of their stakeholder group. The project team believed that using a mix of both offline and online activities to encourage those who had not yet engaged in civic participant online is an important element of developing an e-government culture. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: Online skills, the ability to use the computer and the Internet to efficiently and effectively find information, have long been recognized as an important factor in people's ability to utilize web-based opportunities for their social, political, and financial capital enhancing activities (DiMaggio et al., 2004; Hargittai, 2002). Those who are more adept online are more likely to engage the government, beyond pure consumption of its services and information (Smith, 2010). Yet, for such a specific and well-defined activity as commenting on a proposed rulemaking, being adept online may not be enough. van Dijk (2005, 2006) proposed a succession of three types of user skills that have to be developed: operational, information, and strategic -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: First, a user must develop operational skills, the basic ability to work with the hardware and software; then s(he) has to develop information skills, the ability to search, select, and process information found online; and, lastly, strategic skills, the ability to use information technologies as the means to achieve particular goals. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: The Regulation Room platform attempts to strike a balance between broad inclusiveness and informed understanding, while providing the kind of support needed to enable a wide range of citizens to engage effectively in proposed rules that affect them. This focus on increasing opportunity to participate, rather than participation, defines the design choices on Regulation Room. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: But when government policymakers seek public comment on complex policy issues the parameters of “relevant” discussion are set by legal, institutional, budgetary and/or political factors external to the user community. Comments that are off-topic, as measured by these parameters, will be ignored—regardless of what participants think the agenda for discussion should be. Similarly, in rulemaking the official decisionmaking process is not majoritarian. One comment that is supported by credible facts, reasonable arguments, and thoughtful acknowledgement of competing values and interests has a far greater value than multiple comments that express sentiment or preferences only. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: For each of the five rulemakings, a number of information repackaging strategies were used to create a series of “issue posts” that present the important aspects of the proposed rules in relatively manageable segments and fairly plain language. The project team conducted “information triage” by identifying and foregrounding the information in the specific policy context most likely to be needed by participants. This information was then packaged into thematic segments of manageable length. Participants with desire to learn more could get to the original, more complex NPRM text and regulatory analysis, while those who wantmore help could get it through a glossary of unfamiliar terms and acronyms and separate pages that explain the regulatory background. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: The principal strategy for increasing rulemaking “participation literacy” on Regulation Roomwas tacit rather than overt: human moderators who mentored effective commenting using facilitative moderation. Law students in an e-government clinic that were trained in the conflict resolution techniques of contentand process-based group facilitation (Kaner, 2007), moderated asynchronously under the supervision of senior researchers. Moderators helped users manage the large informational load of the rulemakings by providing substantive information about the proposed rules, correcting misstatements or clarifying what the agency was looking for and pointing users to relevant information. They also mentored effective commenting by asking the commenter to provide more elaboration and/or clarification, asking for factual details or data, asking them to consider possible solutions or alternative approaches, and pointing out the characteristics of effective commenting. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: While motivation and online skills are factors associated with the second-level digital divide, the democratic divide is an illustration of it (Min, 2010). In describing the democratic divide, Norris (2001), emphasized that the Internet probably has the least impact on changing the motivational basis for political action, “digital politics functions mainly to engage the engaged.” The project team's first initial working hypothesis focused on mediating motivation and access issues for would be participants in the five rulemakings. By using their communication outreach strategies,methods of information presentation, and human facilitative moderation they were trying to “engage the unengaged” by bringing rulemaking newcomers to Regulation Room and inculcating them with the norms of effective participation to a sufficient degree that they could provide information perceived as useful by agency decisionmakers (Farina et al., 2011). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: Still, both the information presentation strategies and moderation protocols assumed that participants must (and could) engage in explicit reason-giving and adequate substantiation of factual claims in order to participate effectively (Epstein, Farina, & Heidt, forthcoming). This realization reflects Barzilai-Nahon's (2006) argument that networks and associated technologies are not neutral artifacts but are political and social spaces in their structure as well as in their content level. Regulation Room was unintentionally reflecting the expectations of rulemaking “insiders. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: Two aspects of the rulemaking community of practice could operate to discourage and marginalize contributions of rulemaking newcomers: (1) the type of evidence and claim substantiation that is valued, and (2) the form of argumentation that is privileged. Rulemaking, as it has been legally constructed, emphasizes empirical “objective” evidence in the form of quantitative data and premise-argumentconclusion analytical reasoning. By contrast, novice commenters in Regulation Room tended to offer highly contextualized, experiential information, often communicated in the form of personal stories, what the project team refers to as “situated knowledge” (Farina et al., 2012). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: When we asked for reasons and for factual support, commenters persisted in telling stories. Instead of hypothetical examples, they offered first-person narratives. Instead of logic-based reasoning from abstract principles, they supported their positions with highly contextualized argument from their own experience. This finding should not have been surprising, because the prevalence and role of storytelling in public discourse has been studied in a variety of contexts. Sociologists, communications theorists, conflict resolution specialists, and researchers in policy studies and public administration have noted the marked tendency of “lay” members of the public to engage policy issues from the vantage point of personal experience and to use narratives to express what they know (Black, 2009). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: To reduce the democratic divide, a more capacious view of the kinds of comments that “count” in a rulemaking is required. Agencies will have to evaluate and appropriately use the experiential, situated knowledge of new rulemaking participants. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: Producing a successful mechanism for online public participation in government decision-making is complex and resource-intensive. Adding the “e” to the processes of government and civic participation requires taking an expansive look at the digital divide and deliberative processes. It goes far beyond creating “a simple discussion forum,” as a former senior White House official once (incorrectly) described Regulation Room or simply designing the right tool. It requires adjusting the process and allocating resources to non-technological activities that contextualize online political deliberation. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: Specifically the Regulation Room case highlights the importance and the “costs” of addressing the motivation for online civic engagement by increasing awareness and process transparency, lowering the skill barrier when it comes not only to the technical skills, but also to the process of participation in the bureaucracy, as well as addressing contextual factors that lie completely outside of the technological realm when it comes to the policy language barrier and addressing various concerns members of the public may have based on their perceptions and previous experiences of interacting with the government. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: All the factors discussed in this paper are inherently interrelated. Some of them are indeed technical and are focused primarily on design decisions and iterative approach to developing technological platforms for public participation. The majority of the factors, however, lie outside of the technological domain. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.7: While the mainstream debate about online deliberation and civic participation is focused primarily on technological solutions, the nuanced lens of the digital divide illuminates the non-technical aspects of nonparticipation. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014