Whilst on holiday in Melbourne, i managed to spend 45 minutes or so with Despina Babbage from DIIRD (Depart for Innovation, Industry and Regional Development). We had an interesting conversation about digital engagement, social media, web 2.0 and Melbourne as a place to live. Afterwards my thoughts turned to the same question that has been bugging me for some time now.
Can we really do Digital Engagement, or will it only ever be tokenistic?
I see a kind of resistance in the area of digital engagement that doesn’t seem to be there with general communications and i believe that is because the communication professionals who are now embracing such tools are not be followed in the same way as the professionals who deal with public opinion and policy creation.
The issues as i see them are:
Can we really provide a platform for electronic engagement which ensures that real people can contribute, participate and debate real issues in online spaces that are formally recognised as engagement spaces by either government or local councils?
How can we facilitate, nurture and foster such spaces whilst avoiding council ownership and maintaining the fluid and social nature of online spaces?
I am not arguing that people are not capable of engaging in such spaces, or even want to engage in such spaces with us, in fact there are a good number of examples in my own council (youth participation, libraries etc) where social networking sites have broadened the reach and and scope of participation. BUT when you talk about what engagement really is and what democracy is all about, we need to ensure we truly understand how representative democracy and participative democracy can unite to provide a REAL agenda of digital engagement.
Also how do people intend on evaluating such engagement activity and manage the process of receiving multi channel responses, within current skills sets. Has anyone or any council embarked on a training and development programme around this activity?
I fear that digital engagement is less about technology and more about skills, trust, faith, competencies and need i say it but REAL LEADERSHIP.
What i do see is that the way to reach people is not directly broadcasting from the top of an organisation but to use the existing connections that real people may have with services and develop new channels into those avenues to maximise and to leverage the opportunities of social media tools for digital engagement.
Digital Engagement for me at least is about connecting people with services through new technologies and enabling them to contribute to service improvements and decisions – this can happen now and must be encouraged at every opportunity and where practical.
This must be supported with an agenda of business change which addresses the culture and skills required to move it to a more mainstream environment.
For the wider and more strategic issues of engagement, i’ll wait for the director of digital engagement to provide some steer.