How the federal government could “go social”

I just has one of those meta-media moments. Today, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media was the guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday radio show. The topic was 2008 In Social Media.

One listener who called in was Jeffrey Levy, web manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency. He asked O’Reilly how the federal government might be able to use social media to enhance governance and civic engagement.

…To be honest, I didn’t actually catch O’Reilly’s answer because my own mental gears immediately went into overdrive. I’ve been involved with covering environmental issues for nearly 20 years — and thus I’m a frequent user of the EPA Web site. And it’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the EPA site currently is one hellacious frustrating sprawling mess, offputting to professionals as well as citizens. (I assume Levy is working to improve that situation…)

But there is another side to how federal agencies interact with the public that goes beyond their own sites: the regulatory process. Every proposed federal regulation must be published in the Federal Register. (Trust me, it’s really ugly. You definitely don’t want to read this stuff unless you have to — yet another strategy to keep citizens at arms length from government.)

Every proposed regulation must allow for a public comment period. That’s where social media might fit in…

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Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?

Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.

From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)

The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.

Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.

I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.

Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….

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