Sunday, April 1, 2007

Network as Catalyst for Democracy

The Council of Europe Committee on Higher Education and Research and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy held a two-day "Symposium on Universities, Democratic Culture, and Human Rights" last week at the University of Pennsylvania. The group comprised university presidents, deans, department heads, professors, and civil society leaders.

I was the final speaker on a panel with David Maurrasse, Timothy Stanton, Josef Huber, and Radu Damian on creating a global network as a catalyst for democracy.

In response to what is seen as a "crisis in confidence" and an increased emphasis on the rhetoric rather than the practice of democracy, these higher education leaders met in Strasbourg last year. They adopted on June 23, 2006 a declaration titled, "The Responsibility of Higher Education for a Democratic Culture, Citizenship, Human Rights and Sustainability," which supports the principles in higher education of:

Democratic and accountable structures, processes, and practice;

Active democratic citizenship;

Human rights, mutual respect, and social justice;

Environmental and societal sustainability; and

Dialogue and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The declaration was also a call for action in local, national, and global communities to put these principles into practice.

My suggestion was that information technology can help democratic practice and leaders in higher education have a responsibility to use this tool. Given the theme of responsibility and scholarship at this symposium and the recent International Studies Association conference in Chicago, I detect a concern among academics about their duty to society--their duty to question policymakers.

A global online network can help deepen democratic practice. In my view, an effective network has global reach or potential and can therefore affect change when called upon. The advantage of a single hub is that the knowledge and networks that it aggregates can more easily find their way on a syllabus or policy paper.

The Internet is a democratic tool because there is little cost of using it and it doesn't discriminate according to language, class, culture, etc. Like good democratic citizenship, it is up to the individual to learn how to use the Internet. While the Internet is a communications or knowledge management technology, democracy can be seen as a governing technology.

Themes on networking civil society I can offer from my experience with Policy Innovations over the past year:

1. Multi-stakeholder approach - build your community and expand by finding overlapping communities;

2. It is a messy process - Some people will participate in networks, some people won't. But human networks are chaotic--as are neurological networks. Nevertheless the weight of successful networks creates a gravity that draws people in.

3. Try to share your knowledge and value with others and look for a place for every stakeholder. Often the people who come to you undergo a self-selecting process.

4. Treat every relationship ethically and with respect. This may need no explanation, but connecting networks requires that relationships are handled with respect.

5. Maintain your guiding ethos, but be prepared to expand, change, and reinvent your methods and delivery systems. The Internet and world are constantly changing; be prepared to rethink copyright and intellectual property.

Finally, the offline meeting and a shared ethos are crucial for online networking success.

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