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Horizontal engagement

Chris Guthrie re-imagines citizenship

We might call citizens, who engage meaningfully in the traditional political arrangements, ‘vertically’ engaged. What interests me is how ‘horizontal’ engagement might look and how it might integrate with the older, more traditional vertical model.

A truly engaged citizenry would be actively involved in the processes that create decisions that impact directly and indirectly upon their lives.  In this new order, citizens would not only help to inform policies in a whole variety of areas from which they may have been excluded in the past, but they would also begin to drive the policy formation agenda.

To use an economic analogy: traditionally, citizens have filled the ‘demand’ function. That is, policy has been supplied to them by the various agencies of government (of whatever hue). The flow of policy is often one-way: from the top down. Recent public consultations notwithstanding, policy still tends to emerge from the top. This has been true, for example, for issues around anti terrorist legislation, or data storage and monitoring. Horizontal engagement would involve a partial role reversal whereby citizens would suggest policy they would like to see implemented.

The horizontal engagement model I have in mind is both mediated and enabled by technology. This is possibly where the most interesting challenges lie for both citizens and policy makers.

Virtual citizen

Much academic effort has gone into positing what the digital or virtual state might look like and what it has to offer. Rather less work has gone into imagining what the virtual or digital citizen might look like. 

ICT-enabled engagement is already showing us how different it is to our more traditional models. It allows for a less hierarchical set of relationships, in which the location of leadership, power, influence and authority is not immediately obvious. This tends to negate traditional forms of negotiation. These ICT-enabled relationships can be ad hoc and single-issue or more long term, appearing by turns to be either dormant or maintaining a watchful eye.

If, as the De Bono Foundation assert, the illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read or write, but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn, then perhaps a similar lesson can be applied to horizontal engagement. Here, success and influence will rest with those citizens who have the ability to form, unform and reform networks which in turn are used to mobilise and influence opinion and thus shape policy.


However, the integration of vertical and horizontal models of engagement poses significant challenges for both citizens and policy makers. For citizens, the issues are around their willingness to spend the time and effort to create, inform and mobilise ICT-enabled networks, and ensure that they do not simply become ‘Radio 4 for the fingers’.  By this I mean that it would be a great pity if these new ICT enabled spaces and forums were to be colonised exclusively by that section of the citizenry that is already engaged.

For policy makers, the challenge is greater. It requires an enormous internal cultural change whereby ease of management is not the primary driver behind administrations. It requires that both policy makers and administrators acknowledge citizens as co-funders, co-creators and co-owners of policy and the policy making process.

Here in the UK, the national indicators as set by central government appear to place a high priority on enhanced and enhancing civic behaviour. Perhaps therefore it is time for reimagining citizenship. I feel that horizontal engagement is rich with possibilities for a fuller, more enhanced 21st century democracy.

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Christopher Guthrie
Christopher Guthrie is Project Manager for Community Engagement at the University of Salford as part of the Beacons for Public Engagement
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