Let people have their say! (but listen to them too)
The UN Special Session on Children took place ten years ago. At the time I was very busy doing invisible background support to a number of events and activities linked to the UN meeting. Among those were a children’s forum, a concert and a global vote/advocacy campaign called “Say Yes for Children”.
The Say Yes for Children campaign was a bold, (over)ambitious and at the time novel campaign to try to mobilize people from around the world to have their say about some of the key issues affecting children. The aim was to both mobilize large numbers of people worldwide to show the level of interest in the topics being discussed, but also through the pledges to get a sense of which specific issues people were most concerned about from a total of 10 issues mentioned on the pledge. It managed to mobilize 94 million pledges which were featured in he Special Session itself. It was a big achievement, but also with many frustrations in terms of mobilizing people, tallying the pledges and then figuring out what to do with them afterwards.
I’m thinking about it today because it illustrates some of the challenges of “open” versus “participatory” development I mentioned in my last blog post, and I see parallels in a lot of the current work being done by various groups to use social media for public engagement in big development issues, and I’m really hoping we can learn some lessons from the good and the less good of what went before.
Ten years on it’s now de rigueur that at every big international conference there is some sort of public “have your say” website set up and promoted via social media in the run up to the event in order to “raise awareness” or “mobilize”. However there are a couple of big issues with this approach as it is often practiced:
1. You can have your say, but is anyone listening? In many cases there is little, if any link between the discussions mobilized by the “campaign” and the actual discussions and decisions taken at the conference itself. In most intergovernmental conferences, only governments have a formal decision-making role, and the level to which they are willing to listen to inputs from outside varies widely but is often limited. It’s important to be aware of the limitations of what the real interest is in listening to non governmental voices whether organized ones such as from civil society, or individual ones from interested citizens. But many creators of campaigns give the impression that people’s contributions will be given more attention than they really will – sometimes even asking for inputs, not to make use of them, but as a means of generating greater public engagement with the issue or positive attention to the organizer, mainly as a PR exercise rather than the genuine conversation they are sold as. We can do better.
2. Dropping the ball – Even if the online dialogue around a big event can only marginally feed into the official conference itself it’s still possible to use the dialogue to get the pulse of the public’s mood about the issue, and to identify a group of potentially engaged citizens who can take action and push the issue in their own right. But too often the campaigns either dissipate after the conference is over as the campaign organizers move on to the next big thing – failing to capitalize on the generated interest to actually do something about the issue in question. Worse than this sometimes campaign organizers simply use the generated list of names as their starter mailing list for their next campaign, or even their fundraising drive.
There are a lot of big international events and conferences coming up with potentially wide-ranging effects on the future of development. Technology now allows us to reach out more broadly than before to find out what citizens feel about them, and to involve them in taking them forward. Let’s push for greater public dialogue on these issues, but also when doing this let’s not oversell the real level of influence people currently have, and once we’ve woken people up and whetted their appetite for more engagement, let’s not let them down, and waste the opportunity of their interest while we move onto the next big thing.