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Grass Roots Open Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kirsten Loutzenhiser

Open government can be added to other public administration values. It represents accountability, citizen engagement and transparency. It can enhance representation, social justice and equality. The examples of exceptional students as self-advocates present a discussion on how governments are able to balance minority and majority interests. Students with exceptionalities/disabilities are now using social media to shape public policy, hold governments accountable and demand representation.

In the United States, Canada and United Kingdom, exceptional students receive individualized education plans (IEP) for educational services. The bureaucratic process puts students and their families in a position where they have to first prove a disability and next prove the student’s abilities. Students and parents navigate through an IEP process and some are choosing the self-advocacy path through Web 2.0 technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Change.org and others. This article reflects on the impact of individuals acting as a group to redress government through social media.

The way students, parents and K-12 institutions understand the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is instructive, especially with social media tools. Some students are using Facebook to shape the meaning of free and appropriate education to all. By law those exceptional student services should be equal to those provided to nondisabled students.  Examples on Facebook, such as I Stand with Henry, Equality for Gage and I am Norm represent pages with thousands of supporters..

These individualized, self-advocacy campaigns give meaning to open government initiatives, lead from the grassroots. If parents or students choose to go public, the approach to individualized educational plans (IEPs) becomes both private and public. While a student or a parent can publicize the process, a school district cannot. This means that public officials need to be trained in communication when some constituents choose to ‘go public.’

Public institutions can train their leaders how to communicate in a broader sense to reflect their representativeness, compassion and responsiveness to their educational mission. If an exceptional student can communicate as an advocate, watchdog or as a nonprofit, there is an unprecedented reordering of the dialog between students, parents and bureaucracies within educational institutions.

In a more open system, public administrators need to address their organizational cultures to allow for information to flow from the ground up and accept the role of facilitating communication rather than leading it.

President Obama’s Open Government Initiative upholds a value of public accountability, transparency and citizen engagement. While it may ask that public administrators lead this initiative, citizens can lead their own open government initiatives through the use of Web 2.0 tools such as microblogs and social media.

Forums such as Facebook and Twitter are a few examples that allow individuals, small groups and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to engage in dialogic communication. These forums have global implications as seen by a few self-advocacy blogs lead by students living with disabilities/exceptionalities. It is powerful to learn from the voice of a student who shares their personal experience of public policy. They further draw supporters when they point out that a focus on disabilities detracts from their abilities.

A nonexhaustive review of self-advocacy, Facebook pages instructs on how to build significant support. Successful strategies include posting pictures, telling personal stories, allowing for dialogic communication and making calls for action. When students are organizers, watchdogs and participants, they are opening up government.

The dialogic communication on Facebook offers lessons about communication, helpful to individuals and institutions. In the social media world, comments occur in real time in a forum people access multiple times a day. The ongoing and open discussions strengthen trust, interest and a willingness to help a cause. These discussions also clarify and educate the public about the lengthy bureaucratic process that exceptional students experience. The social media discussions show that people want to understand processes exceptional students experience across districts, states and countries. These discussions show that open government initiatives can be lead from the ground up and that governments at all levels need to be ready, willing and able to be responsive.

When a story of a student’s self-advocacy goes viral, social media can affect public policy. This research started through observing the efforts of an exceptional middle school student who advocated for inclusion for him and others at his neighborhood middle school. His story is represented on a page known as I Stand With Henry.

It is important to study how grass roots organizations are functioning as nonprofit organizations and influencing public policy. There are global implications about the ways marginalized voices can be heard on the public stage.

The process of institutionalizing citizen engagement and interactive dialog with constituents requires a change in the organizational culture across governments. The grass roots efforts where students are advocating for their rights in education serve to drive this point home. If governments do not change the way they communicate, grass roots campaigns may provide an impetus that brings a new meaning to open government.
Author: Kirsten K. Loutzenhiser, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Public Administration at TROY University (Florida) and can be reached at [email protected].

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