June 2007

Treating Citizens as Infants or Adults?

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How do e-Government projects treat citizens – as infants or as adults?

e-Government means any use of information technology in the public sector.  But e-Government is most associated with G2C – web sites that provide information and online transactions for citizens.

When most such sites are designed – unwittingly perhaps – they treat citizens as infants; as red-in-the-face, temper-tantrum toddlers sitting at their PCs screaming “I want it now!!!”.  So G2C projects are constructed around the instant gratification of the citizen-infant. They must make things quicker for the citizen-infant. They must make things easier for the citizen-infant.

Responsibilities and efforts are to be lifted from the citizen-infant’s shoulders. With luck it might respond with a gurgle as its car tax or passport is renewed, but that will soon be forgotten.  Longer-term it will be developing many other infant traits in its relation to government – dependency, passivity, impatience, incompetence, trivialisation.  So do not then be surprised when these instant-gratifiers shriek in frustration if their ideas do not become policy tomorrow, or when they toddle off to play computer games or read the Hollywood gossip rather than engaging with politics.

Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis, would recognise this situation well. Most G2C takes the form of a parent—child transaction, with all that implies about the infantilisation of citizens. But he also points the way to an alternative; transforming e-Government into adult—adult transactions.

Designed in this way, e-Government would treat citizens as adults. It would require them to make an effort.  It would require them to take responsibility.  It would help to turn them into active, independent, competent members of society.

What would this mean in practice?  Some examples:

e-Democracy: not the push-button stupidity of supposedly expressing your view as a citizen by clicking your mouse or, at best, filling your name on an e-Petition.  Instead, deliberative democracy: a structured interaction with others that takes time, thought and commitment.

e-Learning: not the spoon-feeding of the didactic models inherent in many systems. Instead, a monitored peer-to-peer learning approach that means you can only take out if you’re prepared to contribute in a meaningful way.

e-Services: not the passive immediacy of current online systems treating citizens as infant consumers. Instead, development of e-Government systems that allow self-management and self-assessment, treating citizens as adult “prosumers”.  A few countries allow this with taxation but the potential to extend – to health, to education, to participatory budgeting – is great.

e-Government is but a symptom of two broader pathologies because it sits at the intersection of bureaucracy and e-Business.  From bureaucracy it inherits the tendency of public institutions to paternalism; treating citizens as cases not people; treating citizens as recipients not participants. From e-Business it inherits the race to the bottom that insists the easiest click will win the competition for the most business.

Recognising these pathologies could be the first step to taking a different route with e-Government: not infantilisation but “adultisation”.  This route would design e-Government initiatives to increase rather than decrease citizen responsibilities. And it would focus not on reducing effort for citizen-infants but on helping to build the active citizenship of citizen-adults

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