Response to discussion leader essay, Brazil…A Model to Follow?

Francisco Paulo Jamil Almeida Marques points out in “Government and e-participation programs: A study of the challenges faced by institutional projects” that he believes there is a set of constraints that drives the differences between how the Brazilian presidency and the Brazilian House of Representatives use digital media to improve democratic participation.   I agree with Dora that it is odd that there has been no improvement on the presidential site since his study was published over 4 years ago as demonstrated by the fact that it does not foster interaction.  Given the use of digital media has skyrocketed along with the proliferation of digital media tools such as mobile applications, is it possible that more than scarce resources are to blame?

To try to better understand the situation, I delved into the Brazilian presidency to try and learn more about Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president.  I found her political career fascinating as I read about her early roots as “Joan of Arc of subversion” and her ideological transformation from Marxism to pragmatic capitalism.  I came across one of her early influencers, Regis Debray who wrote “Revolution inside the Revolution” which introduced me to an array of militant political activism strategies until I found an essay written by Mark Rudd titled Che and Me:The Foco Theory which ends on the note of democratic nonviolence.  Just think if these revolutionaries would have had digital media at their fingertips.

After looking for clues via an ethnographic approach, and considering that, as Dora points out, the White House web page equally lacks interactivity as the Brazilian presidential web page, I think the lack of interactivity is intentional and not due to lack of financial or physical resources.  Fundamentally, I think what is at play is perceived risk.  Risk to established norms, risk to security, risk of mis-interpretation, risk of looking stupid, risk of being wrong.  The good that will come of a more interactive web site needs to overweigh the perceived risk.  Most of this I think could be handled with creating a plan that establishes objectives, sets boundaries and has commitment and follow through and also addresses how to handle mistakes and the proverbial mishap.

I think of John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design, and his challenges when he tried to live via the principles of authentic leadership by being accessible, trying to employ social media to engage.  His reward was a vote of no confidence by his colleagues.  Still, he is committed to staying engaged.

Part of the issue is dealing with legacy infrastructures, both mental and physical, that are not built upon nor are geared to support open dialogue. I see it as much in political culture as in corporate culture.  I do believe it will and can change.

In the case of the presidency, whether U.S. or Brazilian, it will take a president that is willing to accept the risk as well as have the fortitude to take responsibility, set appropriate boundaries (what is the right level of interaction – is it a chat room and/or an interactive tool that allows comments on bills before congress?) and commit to it.

The use of social media proliferated from the bottom up.  I think those at the very top are still learning how best to manage it – some are still clueless.  Having a social media strategy that works takes time and its foundation is based on how you want to engage.  What is appropriate?  It’s new ground.  Politician’s, including presidents, need to plan and think through their social media strategy, not just for election, but for while they are in office and beyond.

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