Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Public engagement by people who fear public engagement

Our district has created a new website, Engage Iowa City Schools, to “start an online conversation” about “your thoughts and ideas to enhance our educational system.” If there was ever a website designed by school administrators, this is it. All of the district’s worst tendencies – the infantilization, the hovering micromanagement, the obsession with control, the discomfort with dissent – are built right into the site.

Rather than just allow people to start threads and debate topics of their choice, the district has chosen four topics, and participants have to either suggest an “idea,” or respond to someone else’s “idea,” about one of those four topics. (One of the topics is “What Are the School District’s Biggest Strengths?”) If you respond to an idea, you are prompted with the phrase “I would improve this idea by . . .” The site repeatedly admonishes users that the site “relies on positive interactions,” that they should “be respectful” and say nothing “derogatory,” and that there “is no need to sharply criticize another member’s ideas.” “If you need to ask yourself twice if it’s appropriate, it’s probably not appropriate.”

In fact, even to sign up for the site – a public forum established by a government entity – you must agree not to say anything that is “inappropriate” or “otherwise objectionable.” The company that administers the site makes it clear that it reserves the right to censor any material that it, “in its sole discretion, deems objectionable,” and to deny access to anyone who violates its guidelines. As the district’s community relations director put it, “If someone has an idea, you can like it, but you can’t put an idea down, so hopefully it will have the ability to keep things positive and productive just because of how it’s designed.” (See this post.)

Even the district’s embrace of behavioral conditioning and material rewards is reflected in the site. By creating an account and posting ideas or comments, you earn points that you can then redeem – I’m not making this up – in the “Rewards Store,” for items that range from tickets to a high school play (200 points) to lunch with the superintendent (750 points). I currently have fifty-two points, but when I find a way to post my “idea” that the district should stop using material rewards for behavior management, I’ll get ten more.

Is there any other public institution that works so hard to control and manage the way people talk about it? One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is that free and vigorous debate will lead to better policymaking. Why is our district so afraid of it?

Here’s my Idea: Let’s see ten or twenty more blogs by parents like this one, or by students like this one, or by concerned citizens like this one. Let them link to each other and disagree with each other and argue with each other and maybe even get angry (oh no!) sometimes. Let them treat each other like adults and not get too caught up in whether everyone is showing sufficient respect. Then see what ideas survive the debate and end up persuading people. I’d submit that idea to our district’s website, if only it would let me.


Chris said...

I just sent this email to the company that operates the website:

Hi, I am an Iowa Citian and have been checking out your website. I am wondering if you have any guidelines about how you will moderate comments on the site, and in particular under what circumstances you would choose to delete or not publish someone's comment. I ask because the site is set up and sponsored by a public body, which means that First Amendment protections would apply to people posting there. I don't see how it would be constitutional, for example, to allow only "positive" or "constructive" comments on people's ideas, but not "negative" or "critical" ones, since viewpoint-based censorship of speech on policy issues is at the heart of the First Amendment. Can you tell me what your moderation policy is?

Karen W said...

I was struck by the "how it works" page where they state that community engagement starts by them "defining important topics in your community." In a week that saw heated debate about the SILO high school set aside, they have defined "what aspect of ICCSD schools to brag about to out-of-town friends and relatives" as an important topic?

This seems like a good way to reinforce the idea that the district is out of touch and not particularly responsive, doesn't it?

Plus, when are they going to issue physical community engagement reward cards so I can earn points for attending school board meetings, talking to other parents about "important topics", writing letters to the editor, and talking to legislators about education issues? Or at least let me earn points when I buy gas?

Suzanne Lamb said...

Rather than use democratic principles as a model for the website, they used . . . a video game. Wow. And all the let's-be- positive stuff? It's a page out of Barbara Ehrenreich's _Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America_. Positive thinking as thought control. I think Ehrenreich would really appreciate hearing about this.

Chris said...

I’m encouraged to see that at least some participants are unwilling to be straitjacketed by the site’s insistence on positivity; in response to the topic of “What Are the School District’s Greatest Strengths,” one guy even posted an idea titled, “Is Everybody Writing Comments Delusional?”

I have now posted two “ideas” of my own on the school lunch thread: “A more humane environment” and “Less emphasis on reflexive obedience to get material rewards." I got a kick out of the fact that after I posted each one, the site told me, “Good idea!”

Chris said...

Sorry, here's the link for the second one.

Doris said...

Instead of viewing the site as a (limited) public forum subject to reasonable time, place, & manner restrictions, maybe it makes more sense to think of it as aspiring to enact a form of "government speech." The ICCSD isn't really presenting itself as offering a neutral venue where members of the public can express their own ideas as individual citizens. Instead they are inviting citizens to parrot the views that they want to have expressed. Sure, there's a little room for individual expression, but the broader goal is to promote the idea that the ICCSD is well-run, that all the "stakeholders" get along and are happy with the district, and so on.

Maybe for this post you should link to a clip of Dick Van Dyke singing "Put on a Happy Face." :-)

Chris said...

Doris -- That's right. I'm not Mr. Taxpayers' Association, but I do wonder how much money the district is paying this outside company for something that looks an awful lot like self-promotion. Not to mention that a less restricted and convoluted site could almost certainly have been designed by someone already on the district payroll.

Chris said...

Suzanne -- I'll definitely check out that book. I bet she could write an entire sequel just about public schools.

Karen -- Ha, and I should get three points for every email I send to a legislative candidate! I'd be having lunch with Murley tomorrow.

Seriously, though: Those are the four issues they identify?