I want to get back today to our west coast trip of last week, particularly our meeting with Mitch Kapor.
As I mentioned earlier, we really are on the same wave length with him — 100 percent aligned on the issue of citizen empowerment and using technology as a tool for that. We agreed too that Congress is badly dysfunctional and that we must do something — and soon — to change that. We all believe that indeed that we have an obligation to fix the problems.
Mitch made this additional important point: in trying to fix the problems we have to refrain from doing things that make it worse – a sort of "Hippocratic Oath" for reformers. Do no harm in trying to change the system. To that end, Mitch cautioned us that an attitude of "gotcha" is the wrong direction. Instead, the direction for reform and for engaging people needs to be positive.
Mitch reminded us that he’s made a lot of educated guesses in his life that have paid off (that’s pretty obvious) and he’d wager that the kind of changes we hope to see will come from emphasizing the positive, by standing for things, not just standing against them. He strongly encouraged us to focus in this direction, finding ways to encourage public thinking on a vision of a well-functioning democracy.
To that end, he loved our idea of a community creating a model of what it would mean for a lawmaker to be truly transparent about what his/her work in Washington. We also brainstormed the possibility of creating a policy "wiki" through which citizens would get engaged in thinking about policies on issues that affected them. Imagine what people would say about the kind of health care they need, or tax policy they think is fair?! This idea could go far.
He made another important point that we certainly agree with and that we have already taken to heart: Most Washington "insiders" devalue what ordinary people can contribute to politics, policy debates, investigative journalism and the like. We’re set on proving them wrong. Our first two steps in this direction — first in establishing Congresspedia, and second in our initial distributed journalism work are proving our point. While participation in both efforts is still modest, but building, the signs are very encouraging. Asking the community to tell us their thinking will be a guide to all nearly all our work: we’ll be using this model in other efforts too: perhaps trying that policy wiki Mitch suggested or asking the community what kind of information mashups to undertake, as just two ideas that immediately come to mind..
And finally, we hatched the idea of a face-to-face meeting with developers and those organizations and individuals who are already digesting and analyzing campaign finance, lobbying and other "political raw data." Mitch is quite excited about exploring the world of the raw data and what citizens can do with it and how we can use "open source" processes to enhance the data. We are beyond pleased that he’ll host a meeting to dig deeply into this.