Tag Archives: deliberative democracy

Crowdsourcing our government?

Of all of the essays from Rebooting America that captured my attention, it was probably the one from Beth Simone Noveck, about completely envisioning a new style of citizen participation in governance and decision-making, that most captured my imagination.

She starts with an acknowledgement of a lament close to my own heart, that deliberative conversations seldom connect to action, which can mean that they’re even worse than non-participation, because they give people the feeling of having a stake, when they really do not. She calls them “one-off affairs, not tied to governmental practices of agenda-setting, policy-drafting and decision-making.”

And she’s right.

But we know that officials don’t need to be sole decision makers, that, in fact, we’d come up with better policy solutions, and better paths to implementation, if more voices were included, in meaningful ways, in that process.

And that’s when Noveck’s essay gets really interesting. She lays out a practical framework for micro-participation, of sorts, that would allow the public, writ large, real involvement in government decisions, in such a commonsense, pragmatic way that it’s really hard to find much objection.

Don’t think about other experiences in “participation” that you may have had–she’s not thinking roundtables with colored dots, or advisory councils galore. She points out that we don’t need large numbers of people to work on issues and that, in reality, relatively few government officials make many very important policy decisions today. And she’s not talking about some high-tech public comment or voting system on every piece of legislation, either. At least to begin, she focuses on regulatory action as policymaking, and envisions a mechanism of crowdsourcing in which a few dozen experts and enthusiasts would handle these regulatory issues by providing their consultation in the ‘action stage’ of governing.

There’s certainly no reason to think that these lay experts couldn’t craft regulatory policy as well as the current bureaucrats do, and involving the 5 or 10 or 100 people who know best, a percentage of whom will want to contribute to solving community problems, would not be an insurmountable technical or logistical challenge, either, especially in light of today’s technology.

She makes a compelling case, too, that such a system would be no more prone to corruption than current practice, and that the openness and transparency that would come more naturally to such a participatory model would, most likely, serve as a deterrent to corruption.

I love this idea.

I’ve met dozens of social work students and practitioners whose passion is something relatively obscure–rules about when foster care providers can also serve as foster families, for example, or restrictions on voting rights for those with mental illness, or reimbursable services for Medicaid recipients struggling with post-partum mood disorders.

I WANT these individuals engaged in policymaking, directly, on these topics. They know them, and they care about them, and they would do a better job than I would, or than an elected official balancing hundreds of different policy issues, none of which dovetail very well with the above.

But even more importantly than the substantive policies that could emanate from such a system are the skills and competencies that participants in such a crowd would develop, skills that would enable them to not only advocate more effectively in disparate topics, but also to leverage their voices and relationships in the legislative policy realm, too.

I agree with Noveck that it’s time to move participation beyond talking. Our government would be better off, and so would our citizenry. If you’re intrigued, check out the Democracy Design Workshop, a “do tank” oriented around projects that seek to build such tools. There’s an awesome e-rulemaking interface to improve public participation in federal regulatory policymaking, a policy wiki for collaborative legislative drafting, and ‘clickable statutes’, which creates interactive diagrams to help lay people better understand legislation.

Government by the people…maybe it really is possible?

America Speaks: The federal budget, the limits of consensus, and a confession

photo credit, America Speaks

A good friend of mine was very involved in the local contingent of the national deliberative process around the federal budget, earlier this year, through the organization America Speaks. A couple of days after the town hall, she and I were waiting for our kids to finish swimming lessons, and, as we often do, talking about democracy and public policy and social change, instead of…whatever else we might talk about?

And, while I don’t remember exactly, I can imagine that I might have rolled my eyes a bit. Because the truth is, as many of those who had social work classes with me, or those who have shared a table with me at any sort of deliberative process function know, I have this major ambivalence about the whole “consensus-building” process.

I’m totally pro-citizen engagement, as you know–but that’s citizen engagement with those in power, vying for power themselves, making a mark on the policymaking process, making their voices heard by those with the authority to do something about it.

And that’s where the disconnect has often been for me with these facilitated ‘conversations’ about critical social issues: they can give sitting around with people who have absolutely no intention nor ability to change anything the appearance of being real democracy, which, I believe, can actually do significant harm. People who feel that things should have changed because they spent 4 hours (or, in this case, 8!) talking about them (and, in fact, are given the impression that they will) can lose heart and disengage from the tactics that would be more likely to bring results.

There are few things more disempowering than false empowerment.

So, I probably said something about how I’m less interested in consensus and more interested in building the power that will enable me to win (my most infamous example of this frustration with process comes after a painful seminar on consensus organizing, when I admittedly told the woman who had illustrated the philosophy behind the approach with a “tiny fire of smoldering embers” that, “sometimes, what we need is a big ass bonfire to really burn some stuff up.”)

So that gives you a sense of how I struggle with this stuff.

Still, when some of my students brought up the America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy session during class discussion on the federal budget last week, I resolved to sit down and really go through their work. Because, to a large extent, something that can get people worked up enough about reasonable strategies for deficit reduction is doing something very, very right.

And, I’ll say it.

I was wrong. Okay, partially.

Because there is really a lot to get excited about, at least in the way that this particular organization approaches the whole deliberative democracy idea, even if I still have a lot of caveats to my enthusiasm.

What I love:

  • Engagement is off the charts: they had 3500 participants in 60 cities, 1600+ fans on Facebook, and more than 49 comments to a blog post summarizing the preliminary results. The challenge, of course, is to translate engagement in that process to engagement in the political one, but, still, that’s a level of ongoing participation that is bound to teach people a lot of the very skills (holding firm in their positions, articulating their values, communicating dense policy information) that they’ll need to succeed in advocacy in the policymaking venue, too.
  • They’ve obviously thought about how to make the message resonate with the intended audience–there was A LOT more here in terms of testimony to Congress, a press strategy, and even participation by members of Congress (9 were part of the day’s events) than I had mentally given them credit for, or than I have often experienced in these kinds of conversations.
  • The level of depth and breadth in the proposed recommendations is commendable, and quite sophisticated–another painful memory of mine is sitting through a daylong discussion of how to end poverty in my state that ended with, seriously, a consensus that we should have “a working group” dedicated to the issue. I was even invited to be on it! Um, no thanks. By contrast, the folks at America Speaks had very specific, actionable (and, therefore, objectionable, but that’s a lot of what I like about them!) recommendations that are really quite close to legislative proposals.
  • They’re thinking about how to move people to action–they have sample letters to the editor and have briefed members of Congress (and, I hope, providing tools to help participants do likewise), and their website includes a “take action” button. For that alone, I owe they (and Brandi!) a sincere apology for any eye-rolling that may have occurred.

    But, still, I have a few worries. I’m not sure, really, that these are avoidable in this whole deliberative exercise, but they still concern me:

  • The whole “keypad polling” thing is reminiscent of American Idol and, I think, can give people a false sense that they really have a “vote” on matters like whether to raise the Social Security retirement age, leading to confusion about exactly how citizens interact with policy, and with policymakers.
  • There still seems to be a preoccupation with process. While I could say that I’m glad that people are learning to hold leaders accountable, most of those 49 comments related to the process of deliberation itself, and, honestly, frustration with how America Speaks was handling the analysis. With record deficits, onoing high unemployment rates, and dire need for investments in much of human welfare in this country, that seems like misplacement of some of this awesome energy.
  • Similarly, I still think that the focus on consensus exacerbates our discomfort with power, and how power can/should be used, in unproductive ways. The truth is that consensus doesn’t figure into our policymaking process AT ALL, and, to at least a certain extent, we have to recognize that if we’re going to get smart about doing the things that will get us the power we need.

    When we were talking about the local event, my friend lamented the protestors outside who were criticizing America Speaks for (in their opinion) including options that would threaten Social Security and ignored the potential of single-payer health care. I, on the other hand, was delighted. Because the truth is that we need that, too–people who will stand outside and scream, until the conversation happening inside has to shift, somewhat, to accommodate them.

    But, still, I stand largely corrected. And, Brandi, I promise, next time I’ll let you watch your kid swim.

  • This time, it’s personal: “Rebooting America”

    If any of my readers attended the Personal Democracy Forum, just consider me jealous. I’ve added it to my list of “conferences I shall attend when the kids are older and I have a travel budget again.”

    Until then, I’ve consoled myself with Rebooting America, an edited collection of essays about how to use technology to transform government and reinvigorate our electoral process, among other ideas to change the world.

    I certainly don’t pretend to be as expert in how technology can transform our democracy as the diverse set of thinkers and practitioners contributing here, nor (at more than 230 pages) do I want to summarize all of the recommendations.

    Instead, consider this a sort of “greatest hits” list, at least from my perspective–the ideas that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and the ones that I believe have the most potential to truly change how we as citizens interface with each other, and with governance (note, not “government”, since several of the essays make a persuasive case that government as we know it may, in fact, be a concept with a limited future), not just putting a slick, “tech” face on the same old patterns.

    As we approach Election Day (another time-honored ritual whose time, I believe, has come–why can’t we vote online over a period of weeks, for example?), I want to hear your most fervent hopes for what tomorrow’s democracy will look like, and your best ideas for how technology can help us get there. How would you “reboot America”?

  • The essays that I highlighted the most all had in common a strong orientation towards participation that goes far beyond voting–a reimagination, in a way, of what it means to be a citizen, and an understanding that voting alone reduces us, really, to consumers choosing between two or more prepackaged products, which is, ultimately, a really narrow understanding of civic engagement. Several contributors talked about the need for “platforms that will actually engage people in effective, sustainable efforts aimed toward identifying our difference and commonalities, and acting together to further our common goal” (Yochai Benkler). Of course, the way the system is constructed today, voting still matters. But citizens who volunteer, work in their local communities, and debate issues will still vote, they’ll just have many alternative ways to express their values, beyond pushing a button. As Marie Wilson states, “true political participation is only achieved when a person’s voice counts as much as his or her vote.” Voting should be the floor of political participation, not the ceiling; as one contributor put it, “in a world where kids can be television stars just by finding a video camera and an Internet connection,” there’s no reason citizens should relegate ourselves to being the “television audience watching along at home” (Aaron Swartz).
  • Working within the world as it is, several of the essays made concrete suggestions on how to improve electoral politics, from having a checkbox on the ballot that asks voters whether they “gave serious consideration to the booklets or websites of several candidates” or inserting short political messages into random YouTube video introductions (Brad Templeton); requiring instant runoff voting as a way to give greater political opportunities to outsider candidates, including women and people of color (Marie Wilson); putting “none-of-the-above” on the ballot or allowing voters to add a comment that explains their votes, in a way that could be aggregated to provide greater insights into the electorate (Micah Sifry); or allowing the online voting I referenced above (Allison Fine). As with many things, we run our elections the way we do largely because we have, for as long as we can remember, and, as with many things, that’s just not a compelling reason to make the rather poor decisions we do about something this important.
  • The final set of themes in my notes from the volume relate to ways to improve governance, a sort of third leg in this democratic stool; if we enhance citizenship by giving people more meaningful ways to engage, and we change the way that people are elected in ways that should make them more representative of and accountable to that engaged citizenry, then we also need to create tools that will help those two groups work together effectively to do the business of governing. These include such ideas as marginalizing the role of the presidency in favor of a tiered council model (Jan Frel and Nicco Mele); creating “radar screens” of issues coming before the local government, with interactive ways for people to provide feedback (Susan Crawford); and crafting a “Delegation for Future Interests”, composed of young people and forward-thinking scientists who would focus on what our current government does very poorly–thinking about future challenges and the future implications of present decisions (Matthew Burton). This last set of ideas is obviously the most difficult. Technology alone can’t shift entrenched power positions or reenvision our framework of governance. But it can give us the tools to make those dreams more possible, and, therefore, give us license to dream them.

    Citizens for whom voting is just one piece of a seamless life of activism and participation, a democracy that facilitates the connections to each other and to a greater purpose that can animate our lives, and a system of governance worthy of our ideals and capable of rising to our challenges…an America to celebrate in the 21st Century.