The explosion in use of social networking sites (abbreviated to “SNS” here) such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Flickr throughout society provides unprecedented opportunities for policy-makers (eGovernment) to engage with citizens (eSociety) using tools and channels the citizens already use and are familiar with. This is in stark contrast to a previous approach of using dedicated, bespoke, constrained and very often underused web-based opinion soliciting platforms. In a sense, these existing sites are very much like ‘walled gardens’: they are carefully constructed and can look very inviting, but they have rigid boundaries, limited admission, restrictive rules of use, and more often than not they are empty of visitors!
In contrast, WeGov uses existing and popular public SNS that function much more like municipal parks – large, unconstrained spaces where many people come together for a diverse set of reasons where discussion is far more open, wide reaching and representative of the community.
Some of the approaches already tried for eParticipation are reviewed in Miller and Williamson (2008). In particular, the case study of No10 Downing Street is an exemplar of the problems that WeGov set out to address. This case study reviews what happened when a discussion website (DebateMapper) was set-up to support Tony Blair’s series of lectures when he left office. There were 309 invitees to the site (e.g., journalists), with 240 invited via Reuters and 69 invited by the Hansard Society. 7% of the invitees registered, including 25% of the Hansard Society invitees and 2% of the Reuters invitees. Only 2 of Hansard Society invitees contributed to the map – via edits and comments. None of the media invitees contributed directly to the map. So, in short, almost nobody added information to the bespoke DebateMapper website. This was primarily because many of those invited to participate were from the media and already had alternative and favoured ways of airing their views, e.g., in newspaper columns. The comments and blogs attached or linked to these other established channels was where the discussion really took place. This is a prime example of discussion taking place where it is most natural and using the tools that are most familiar to those involved – with an attempt to move the location and structure of the discussion, i.e., to DebateMapper, resulting in little impact.
Just from the viewpoint of members of parliament there is a gap of engagement. Members of parliament claim a stronger engagement of citizens within the governmental decision process. That is a major result of the German parliamentarians’ study (DEUPAS) where 33% of all the German parliamentarians of the German Bundestag and 16 state parliaments participated. Proposals or solutions how to engage citizens or how to get their opinions is however not part of the study and unanswered (Kleves et al., 2010).