Is Public Participation in Emergency Management a Problem or a Solution?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The use of social media and Gov 2.0 by government agencies should be viewed as not only a new means of informing the public, but also as an opportunity for the public to participate  in the decision-making process.  In the emergency management field, these new technologies have presented opportunities for direct public participation during crises, notably with information curation, collation, and distribution.  In the U.S. we saw spontaneous applications in Boulder, CO a few months ago in connection with local wildfires that threatened the urban dwellers.

The key question is: when it comes to actually influencing government decision-making, are citizens able to leverage social media in order to have an impact? As I have mentioned before, after the Deep WaterHorizon Oil Spill Admiral Thad Allen said “We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.”

Ladder of Participation by: Sherri Arnstein

Ladder of Participation: By Sherry Arnstein

I noticed two points of view: those who see public participation as a problem to be solved and those who view this new form of participation as an opportunity to be seized. I commented on this point to my esteemed colleague Claire B. Rubin who quickly corrected me: She indicated that this issue did not just arise with the creation of social media but goes back many decades.  She pointed me to an article dated 1969: “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” by Sherry R. Arnstein. Claire states: “I think there are at least two aspects worth thinking about:  (1.) attitudes toward citizens and their involvement and (2.) organizational culture.”  See the ladder diagram, which essentially is a continuum of power sharing (or not.)

Claire indicated that “…the fundamental issue is how open and collaborative an organization wants to be.  When it is a public agency you would expect it to both serve and respect the views/needs of its citizens. But when the culture is command and control — military, fire, police – their training and orientation is to keep things close to the vest and not open up for collaboration.”

With regard to the second point about organizational culture, Bill Brantley, in the post, “Without Engagement Gov. 2.0 Will Fail” notices some of the same issues:  “For people who are on the cutting edge of the Gov 2.0 movement, we often forget that a majority of government employees are still not enthusiastic about the potential of the new social networking technologies in their workplace. Now many of these folks are using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. to keep up with their family and friends but haven’t made that conceptual leap from using these tools at their job.” Part of the reason lies in concerns over security. Two reports out earlier this year, one conducted by Hewlett Packard and the other by the National Association of State CIOs Social Media Working group (NASCIO), had large number of respondents indicating that security concerns were a barrier to Gov 2.0 adoption.

So how high have we climbed up that ladder? It is interesting to note that some of us seem to be stuck on the third rung: “informing”.  Ms. Arnstein made an observation that could have been written today: …too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information-from official to citizens-with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the program designed ‘for their benefit’.”

Recent disaster experiences in the U.S. demonstrate that the public is demanding more control. While the new information technologies make it easier to keep the public informed, the public now has an expectation that you are listening through this new “feedback” loop; that responsible agencies are paying attention to them; and answers will be provided. The last two items in this sequence are new and important to consider.  During the BP Gulf Oil Spill an open call for solutions was not necessarily proffered, but 123,000 suggestions were received nonetheless, according to this USA Today article. Gerald Baron issues a warning to emergency managers in this blog post to plan ahead for this new form of citizen engagement:

So you are involved as Incident Commander or Public Information Officer  for a large disaster or crisis, take heed of these new expectations. As an event grows in scope and media attention, it may be  filled with challenges. What will the interested public do? We know now that they will come to you by phone, email, web form, text message, social media sites and every conceivable way and they will say: “I have an idea and you should pay attention to it.” Then the media will be there and the idea person will say: “I gave them a dynamite idea, it is certain to solve their big problem, but no one even got back to me to say they are paying attention. These people don’t care about solving this problem.” Do you think that won’t happen to you? Do you think that will only happen to companies? Not a chance.

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5 responses to “Is Public Participation in Emergency Management a Problem or a Solution?

  1. Relationships between “officials” and the general public need to be cultivated BEFORE an incident. That creates a vetting process of the general public information stream, twitter for example is very self correcting. Established “non-official” SM participants who have built relationships with the “official” sources can help to disseminate the unsolicited information that comes from the public at –large. Hence the IC and/or PIO has an extra set of vetted if non-official eyes on the SM stream.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Is Public Participation in Emergency Management a Problem or a Solution? « idisaster 2.0 -- Topsy.com

  3. An even better public participation chat, or spectrum, comes from the International Association of Public Participation: http://www.iap2.org/associations/4748/files/IAP2%20Spectrum_vertical.pdf

    But your point is well taken; how truly empowering is social media. I would agree that most governments, especially emergency management offices, are stuck at the “inform” stage.

  4. While I concur with this statement “In the emergency management field, these new technologies have presented opportunities for direct public participation during crises, notably with information curation, collation, and distribution.” I would add that if the public wants input during response and recovery, then they also have a responsibility to participate in the less sexy aspects of mitigation and planning. There are numerous examples of us trying to get the public involved in the palnning aspect to meet a grant requirement. I remember a flood plan citizen meeting we held that was well advertised, and had no one show up.

    • Next time try to have the meeting online with participation allowed through a wiki, in which people can add comments directly to the document. I think the “public square” is evolving from an actual location where people are required to attend in person, to, for example, meetings where people can attend virtually. Of course the planning stage is not “sexy” and getting people’s attention is difficult with everything that competes for their time. This is forcing the emergency management community to be more creative in order to engage the public, but I think technology can help in this regard.

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