At its heart, the South by Southwest Interactive panel "Do People Really Want Participatory Government?" addresses a customer feedback problem.
It has never been easier to get timely, accurate information about your government, from city hall to the federal level.
Yet voter turnout, especially for local elections, still chugs along at consistently lethargic levels.
The government holds public hearings and requests feedback in several ways, yet even decent participation rates still only represent a sliver of the general population.
One of the government's greatest challenges is turning those one-time participants and survey takers into engaged stakeholders who will stick with the problem-solving process until a bureaucratic conclusion is reached.
How do you even begin to address a problem like this?
The hour-long discussion, in which several current and former government workers participated, floated several possible approaches.
One trend among responses noted that public wants to participate—one speaker cited Occupy Wall Street and the tea party movement as examples—but that the interface with government needs work.
Streamlining participation and following up with basic information were possible solutions. A speaker said that even something as simple as receiving an email letting a survey taker know how their information will be used and where they can find the results would be a good next step.
Others said change must come from the bottom up and that top-down solutions are doomed to fail.
The participants shared several stories about the foibles and challenges of working with government.
One speaker worked for a government website and fielded a question about when the Internal Revenue Service would release W2 forms. The punchline is that the person asking worked for the IRS.
Some reported requesting citizen feedback and hearing nothing back.
Federal and city websites are moving more of their resources online while suburban websites lag behind, one person said.
Another said libraries are becoming a major point of contact to help people get government resources and fill out online forms.
In the end, the group reached one fairly simple, but perhaps unsatisfying consensus—government, regardless of participation levels, should be simple and effective.
A speaker summarized it like this: "If I call Time Warner Cable, I don't care about their deals or packages. I just want my Internet to work."