Below is the transcript of my email interview with the Straits Times’ Zakir Hussain. The article appeared in Straits Times Insight today, “Engagement in progress“.
Straits Times (ST): Aims suggests the Government should take part in online discussions and post comments on blogs, train civil servants how to respond to online comments, find ways to show people online that feedback is taken seriously, and set up a youth panel to consult on new media trends, among others. Would we be able to get your thoughts on some of these recommendations, and on a few other questions?
ST: The Aims committee has recommended that the Government launch an e-engagement drive. But it also conceded that while governments worldwide have been experimenting with various forms of e-engagement, there’s been no perfect model. What sort of e-engagement model should the Singapore Government be looking at? What should the point of e-engagement be?
Gerald (GG): There needs to be a paradigm shift in the government’s thinking with regards to e-engagement. As a general approach, instead of pouring money and resources into building it’s own online platforms (eg, Reach), where it tends to only preach to the choir, it should venture out to engaging the “unconverted” on the latter’s turf.
The point of e-engagement should be (1) to help citizens understand policies or proposed policies, (2) gather feedback on its policies, and (3) present a softer, more personal touch to governance.
The government should consider issuing press releases, releasing embargoed papers or speeches, and inviting citizen journalists to cover press conferences and official events. Popular socio-political blogs could be issued press passes like the Malaysian government did for Malaysiakini and other online media. This is a good way to encourage citizen journalists to firstly, report rather than simply comment from a distance; and secondly, to provide fairer and more balanced coverage.
Ministers and senior officials should not be reticient in granting interviews with credible online media if asked.
ST: Are you in favour of the Government getting involved in online conversations by responding to forum posts, or engaging online voices by responding to blog posts? Or would you find this intrusive?
GG: Yes, but I think the government needs to still be selective about which areas it ventures into.
The vast majority of bloggers who don’t blog about political issues would not appreciate it if a government official posts a comment “correcting” them for inaccuracies in their blog rantings. However there are a few serious political bloggers who would appreciate a response to their ideas and suggestions, even if it comes in the form of a strong rebuttal. The response could be a comment on a blog, or a full reply to an article posted online. Serious blogs would be happy to grant the right of reply to the government or any other party.
It would be better if politicians and government officials engage in their “personal” capacities, meaning there is no need to parade one’s full designations, titles and ministries when posting a simple comment on a blog. Blogosphere is an egalitarian world where the quality of your ideas counts more than the titles you carry.
Civil servants should be allowed to comment online on policy matters outside the purview of their ministries, as long as they do so in their personal capacity and they do not divulge classified information. They should not be required to seek their permanent secretaries’ approval before speaking or writing to the media (including online media) on a matter that does not directly concern their ministry.
The Information Ministry is already actively monitoring blogs and Internet forums. It would be nice if the government could at least acknowledge some of the good ideas that are generated online, instead of constantly implying that serious political discussion is absent from the Internet.
ST: What are the potential pitfalls of e-engagement?
GG: I can’t think of any.
ST: What are the plus points?
GG: See answer to (1).
ST: An oft-heard comment about the online world is that it fosters intelligent arguments but also the circulation of half-truths. Will e-engagement cause online comments to become more ‘responsible’?
GG: This “oft-heard” comment is itself a half-truth. The vast majority of material put out online are what the bloggers themselves believe to be true, or are their personal opinions. The few “untruths” are in fact satire that no one takes seriously outside of its comic value.
Yes, I believe e-engagement if done selectively will cause people to be a bit more circumspect in posting their comments. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Internet experts have highlighted that people become much more polite when they know you are listening.
ST: E-engagement can also flow in the other direction – from citizenry to government. (www.mysociety.org from the UK is an example) What initiatives can there be from the citizenry? How might they encourage/induce government to join the conversation they initiate? Where do you see sites like TOC fitting in this?
GG: I think there is a whole lot more that Singaporeans can do with the freedoms we already have. We need to rid ourselves of our “government must initiate” mentality. If we have a passion for something and see a gap that others (including the government) is not filling, then we should step forward, organise ourselves and get something moving.
One sector that is well placed to “self-organise” is the NGO sector, which includes charities and non-profit organisations championing various disadvantaged groups and causes. Many voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) are very close to the ground and can see first hand the social problems in our society. Unfortunately, VWOs in Singapore seldom play an advocacy role, but are content working quietly behind the scenes. If more of them were organise themselves, rally public interest around their causes, we could see a transformation of the government-NGO-citizen relationship, a more engaged citizenry and a much more responsive government.