Professors are obliged to set regular weekly office hours, something most students today find rather quaint. It’s often a time to catch up on email or chat with colleagues, awaiting clients that never arrive. During one such recent occasion, a colleague was bemoaning this loss of real-time interaction, noting that the Internet’s efficiency in sharing does not extend to a capacity for meaningfully conversing.
Of course, most students see things a bit different (and to be fair, the same can be said for more and more younger faculty as well). Always connected and always online, today’s mobile cohort of learners (and tomorrow’s public servants) are plugged into a ubiquitous conversation that never ceases.
This new form of conversation is both open and porous and driven by a growing deluge of content – analyzed by others through algorithmic means. Such is the basis of big data and the growing usage of analytics to find value. The means of expression and exchange are also shifting: Facebook reports that its’ users alone consume more than one hundred million hours of video each day.
The personal and collective costs of this virtual tsunami are well known. The latest book of MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, for example, exposes the loss of empathy and other socializing traits occurring across today’s society and in younger people especially – and the deterioration of conversation as a result.
Whether at the family dinner table or in the classroom, Turkle calls for the creation of ‘sacred spaces’ – technology-free zones where human interaction and thoughtful discussion can be nurtured. Interestingly, many leaders in Silicon Valley have long concurred with this viewpoint, sending their children to the Waldorf School, a learning academic emphasizing imagination and banning all digital devices from their classrooms.
These new dynamics and new tensions present huge challenges to the public sector, within both the legislative and executive branches. Parliaments were established as a sacred space, in a time without television or radio much less the Internet. Today it is an echo chamber of mere partisan talking points whereas the crucial conversations take place in a myriad of ways all around it.
Less shackled by formal partisan structures, local councils are experimenting with new ways to both connect elected officials and the public and create new dialogue. Participatory budgeting is one such example: the City of Halifax deploys inexpensive online videos to better explain budgetary spending and choices and to solicit feedback and input accordingly.
A few Councillors have gone further and crowd-sourced their discretionary spending choices. Similarly, the City of Edmonton has invested significantly in public engagement, mixing an array of channels and methodologies to share power with the local citizenry (see their July 2015 report online, Strengthening Public Engagement in Edmonton).
Provincially and federally, governments remain tentative in their exploration of this new participative terrain. Social media is viewed largely as a communications platform rather than a means of engagement and inclusion. The governing mindset of risk aversion is shaped much more by a television apparatus and traditional media culture than by the new possibilities of collective awareness and involvement.
Such trepidation is understandable when viewed through the prism of conversations that are generally place-based and highly structured. Consultation is similarly linear and codified via texts presented orally or submitted online (typically by special interests rather than average citizens), rarely a collaborative basis for collectively sharing ideas and building innovative solutions.
The challenge going forward for the public sector is to devise new forms of sacred spaces that are in tune with the new tenor of conversation and connectedness all around us. As we witness with some newspapers closing their online commentary, merely inviting input cannot suffice. The deepening and unrelenting impacts of Don Tapscott’s four principles of openness (collaboration, transparency, sharing, and empowerment) necessitate more creative and inclusive approaches to governance.
In 1999, social theorist Daniel Yankelovich published an influential book entitled The Magic of Conversation as a basis for transforming conflict into cooperation. Today we are both losing and re-discovering such magic – and a significant refurbishment of our public institutions is called for. While a new political tone nationally can surely help, looking to Ottawa to lead such an effort is unrealistic: public imagination and local experimentation are the keys to cultivating democratic and discursive renewal.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).