Howard Lee

REACH (Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry@ Home) announced on 2 August revisions to its supervisory panel, constituting Parliament representatives, Citizens’ Consultative Committee chairs and industry players.

For those unfamiliar with the Singapore government’s official citizen consultation outfit formerly known as the Feedback Unit, REACH fields issues across agencies to seek the views of citizens on public policies. It started off chiefly with face-to-face forums and has evolved (or so it prefers to believes) to online channels as well.

For all its efforts in managing its programmes and e-outreach channels, REACH has been lambasted as being the official complaints black-hole for the government, particularly for its online arm. Its foray into Facebook also started off embarrassingly without a firm grasp of how to create the correct identity profile.

This latest media release briefly outlines the role of the supervisory panel in providing “strategic guidance” to REACH for the outfit to achieve its milestones. Achievements of the previous panel include the launch of its Youth Ambassador programme, engaging Singaporeans via social media platforms on Facebook and Twitter, and the formation of Policy Study Workgroups. 18 new members to the panel were identified who are, purportedly, more in tune with youths and the online generation.

Can they deliver?

L to R: PAP MPs Zaqy Mohamad, Christopher De Souza and Baey Yam Keng, & Nominated MP Calvin Cheng

So, is the new panel really more capable in engaging netizens? The Straits Time probably did them the greatest dishonour by flagging four of them – Baey Yam Keng, Zaqy Mohamad,  Christopher de Souza and Calvin Cheng – as “post 65” Members and Nominated Member of Parliament. That cringe-worthy association in relation to the P65 blog is really not doing them much credit.

It also doesn’t help when Zaqy Mohamad was quoted as saying, “More young people want to be heard but perhaps they are not sure of the channels for it.” (Sorry, Joe, but we know, just concerned if we are talking about the same channels?) And for Baey Yam Keng, likewise: “Young people want to feel valued. They want to feel that the authorities are keen and sincere in working to get their feedback.” (Push it forward a little, Einstein. Listening to our grouses is good, but how about following up on them?)

Five new members are also Citizens’ Consultative Committee chairs. I might be casting it narrowly, but these members are more used to citizen consultation in terms of community forums and dialogue sessions, and there is really no indication as to how many are actually in tune with the online scene.

Perhaps my greatest pain was to see Chew V’ Ming, Editor of STOMP, and Serene Goh, Editor of The Straits Times’ Youthink, IN and Little Red Dot, among the panel. Youthink is essentially a one-way blog collection of youths which is not getting much dialogue (no offence to the quality of writing, of course, perhaps it is marketing), while IN and Little Red dot are print publications. And I really don’t want to dredge the muck on why STOMP is a poor example of online engagement, as its reputation online speaks for itself, evident here and here.

Modus operandi, status quo?

Having said that, changing people is one thing, but a change in engagement policy requires more than new people. It requires a new attitude, and that to date is still lacking in the composition of REACH’s supervisory panel, or for that matter, the wider engagement position that the outfit falls within.

To give credit where it is due, REACH has been an important step forward in the government’s public engagement efforts. Even if its single point-of-contact position for the whole of government might be questionable, it has been effective as a single rallying point for how public policies have been opened up for the public to debate on. The old Feedback Unit is the poster boy for a more consultative approach to governance, and its traditional face-to-face forums are likely to continue serving a credible purpose.

But the REACH we see today cannot fully encompass nor hope to reflect the views of the Internet generation. Partly due to slow inertia – the online forum was started only after Singaporeans have flocked to their favourite forums to discuss national issues, complain or just to coffeeshop talk – it never got off to a good start because it was constrained by its limited rules of engagement.

REACH needs to understand that the way to engage online is never the same as the traditional methods it is using. The online world is not your average town hall session. For a start, it is less patient and more opinionated – you will not see people politely raising hands to ask questions, nor unquestioningly take the last words of the panel chairing the discussion as final. For that matter, the panel of experts is actually non-existent online, because the value of expertise is on substance, not position.

But while being slow on the start is a valid excuse, slow on catching up is not. As an example, TOC’s Facebook fans number a humble 6,600, yet it still hold commendably well against REACH’s 2,200. What differentiates TOC from REACH is the level of openness to discussion and comments, which REACH can never quite attain, perhaps due to Big Brother associations, but more likely due to the actual level of responsiveness that netizens face when using REACH.

So what is really lacking in REACH’s effort to engage? In the public’s eye, it is the lack of true desire, and also the courage to go into unfamiliar territory.

Public feedback platforms were already there and active even before REACH attempted to enter cyberspace, but never sanctioned as “legitimate”. No efforts were made to leverage these existing platforms and engage them. Instead, the current behemoth of a portal was create, which till today still struggles to keep up a decent response level to elevate it from black-hole status. You only need to read the number and quality of responses to comments on the portal and its Facebook wall to realise this.

By its very nature, REACH is not generating the level and volume of honest feedback that is already prevalent on other online platforms. Add to that the annoying attitude, intentional or otherwise, of not closing the loop on issues raised as important by its users, and you begin to understand why netizens have such an adverse attitude towards REACH.

It is even more worrying when you realise REACH is supposed to be the main platform for policy makers to seek the views of the online communities on policies, when its basic mode of engaging these online communities has not changed. Unless REACH truly begins to reach out, changing its supervisory panel might matter very little.

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