The fact that the Internet is one of the most powerful organizing tools in history is both thrilling and vexing to public engagement practitioners working to create the conditions for more effective public involvement in public life. We know that the Internet supercharges political campaigning and we know that like-minded individuals are more able than ever to connect with one another because of the Internet. But what is still unclear is how the Internet might help build capacity and momentum for inclusive, collaborative and boundary-crossing problem-solving at all levels of public life (from the national level to the local level).
For those who believe that citizens deserve the best possible opportunities to become partners in problem-solving, the public cannot be viewed just as an audience to politics or merely as customers of government. Instead, the public should be treated as a vital resource for effective problem-solving and community-building. In our work at Public Agenda we have seen over and over again that, under the right conditions, the ability of "ordinary" people to learn, get involved and come to thoughtful judgments about difficult shared problems is far greater than most realize. Regular citizens, who may not be intensely interested in traditional politics but who are greatly interested in the government choices that affect their lives, can make a major contribution in shaping policy and can effectively participate in local efforts to improve life in their communities.
From the perspective of public engagement, the seeming disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of what is made possible by the Internet is perplexing. The rhetoric, and indeed the intentions, of everyone involved in the "digital democracy" movement line up perfectly with the aims of authentic public engagement. Everyone agrees the potential is there to use the Internet to allow citizens to have a greater voice in naming and solving shared problems across boundaries. But so far, the Internet, especially the blogosphere and social networking platforms, is primarily enabling people in partisan silos to network within their own group. A lot of lessons still have to be learned about how to use the Internet effectively for public engagement, yet a wide range of promising examples exist and the opportunity to scale grassroots participation to national politics beyond the capacity limitations of face-to-face events is closer than ever before. In this article we take a closer look at a range of online engagement practices, from high-level national politics to the lowest common denominators, our neighborhoods. The patterns of opinion shaping, dialogue and decision making on each level have changed through the widespread availability of new communication tools yet the diferences between scope of engagement and communication tools can be tremendous. We work here to highlight multiple approaches that try to bridge partisan divides and seek to bring together individuals from all over the political spectrum in meaningful dialogue and deliberation.
Read the full report at http://www.PublicAgenda.org/pages/promising-practices-in-online-engagement.