Governance in the information age is changing more quickly than we realize. In Batangas, a maelstorm over a proposed sign on Taal Volcano has not only shown what many people think, it has done so in hilarious ways. Government should hope it can have this kind of massive feedback as it does no real harm and it will be hard to make a mistake if most steps taken is forged on the fire of public opinion.
So instead of being overly sensitive about the feedback, it might be better to do a Christopher Lao — reframe the incident. This can be done by making this fiasco the beginning of a new era of e-governance for the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape.
This new era is one where ideas can be presented to people way before public resources are committed for it. The idea is nothing new as consultation is already a byword in governance. However, the term consultation takes on an entirely different meaning in the information age.
During the Management Planning exercise for Taal Volcano Protected Landscape, nearly 2,000 people were consulted at great cost in terms of food, transportation and personnel time as well as the time and effort of constituents to come and join the presentations and workshops. The drafts were made available for public comment electronically but there was no formal procedure to do so and many were not about to spend a good part of the day to go over 80 pages of draft plan and comment on it. For the upcoming Tourism Master Planning, however, such massive consultations can be done to subject proposals and priorities to mass participation.
The question is how to generate that kind of response. Obviously not all things government does would be interesting enough to generate replies nor understandable enough for people to get and reply to intelligently. It will be helpful, then to examine what elements made this proposal quite so public and inviting to feedback.
First, it was a single, very simple proposal, easily communicated and it was highly visual — people already saw what it will look like if the proposal pushed through. Second, It was published on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Third, the responses were funny. There is nothing like a funny political comment for sharing widely. The Katipunan only had to recruit two other members to swell the ranks. In the internet age, each person sharing a very visual proposal that strikes at you as viscerally as this photo did can spread like wildfire. This means can swell the ranks of constituents for ecosystem conservation considerably.
This is not to say the face to face interaction would no longer be necessary. The digital divide is still very real. Other means could be used to bridge that divide, including radio and SMS. Face to face consultations would, however, be supplemented tremendously by getting comments from people who care enough to participate, whether by reply SMS, by phone calls to radio stations, by web replies and social network, and by actual appearance and all of them can be counted as part of the community.