The people who do (local government etc) will already have a web presence with a content management system. Anyway, a standalone unintegrated participation system is a bit of an oxymoron, and can lead to a messy situation, as happened with MySociety’s e-petition system for Number 10. A nice bit of coding as far as I know, able to cope with high volumes of signatures, but it has little integration with the UK’s broader political processes, nor even any way of creating or capturing deliberation around the subject.
I’ve been thinking and talking about the issues this raises, and the possible solutions. I think that individual e-participation modules can be brought together, through integration with a third-party application framework or even a web API, by externalising user authentication and content categorisation.
In more detail, I perceive four components (or layers) in an e-participation system (or any other CMS – I am not claiming this is new thinking):
- Presentation of content, including Internationalisation and localisation – providing html (xml?) for display by the CMS
- Authentication/Identification and Authorisation – a service which should be provided by the external CMS if at all possible
- Ontology/keyword management and search, allowing related items to be shown, and searched for
- The modules themselves – web-casting, petitioning, campaigning (if relevant), polls, discussion forums, document management, blogs etc.
The aim would be to keep the components as independent from each other as possible, hopefully allowing integration between systems.
At one level, most CMSs have well defined APIs for plugging in new modules and come with support for at least some of the functionality used for e-participation (eg forums, blogging, linking items to topics); it would be great to be able to use the OSS approach to avoid re-inventing the wheel even if some of the code has to be tweaked.
As you’ll know, authentication (who you are) is different from authorisation (what you can do). If the former could be provided externally (and I think it would encourage participation if that was possible) using something like OpenID, it could provide a cool way for users to identify themselves without have to create yet another account.
Going further, I also think there’s a potential for government bodies to allow Web2.0 functionality (suitably disguised) so that content can be shared with social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace using their web APIs. (I know there are all sorts of issues to resolve around data protection, privacy and ownership…)
The categorisation of content turns out to be the key process: currently I think there has to be a clear ontology (taxonomy even) so that related content will be consistently pulled together (are there any good ontologies out there ready to use?).
It’d be nice to have some mapping from user-defined keywords, but at the moment I’m doubtful that that could be done consistently enough without manual intervention.
It’ll be interesting to see if these ideas go anywhere…