(Cross posted at NewAssignment.)
When someone talks about “politics and the Internet,” they are probably talking about how candidates use Internet strategies to get elected like campaign blogs, campaign ads on YouTube, outreach on Myspace, building e-mail lists for volunteers and raising money.
But most of political life happens outside of elections. The capacity to transform governance through the Internet is even greater than the capacity to transform elections.
The Internet can change how legislation is prioritized, drafted, passed, implemented, and reviewed, and how elected officials interact with their constituents on a daily basis. The lists of volunteers built during campaigns can be mobilized to engage citizens in research, public education, and collecting stories from offline constituents.
I’d like to challenge every successful candidate with an interactive website (of any kind – “donate now!” counts as interactive) to translate what they learned in campaigning to what they can do in governing.
Here are just a few, very non-threatening things any newly elected representative (at any level) can do to open up the political process, without spending a dime on web development. These are easy ways to improve government through open information, and distributed political engagement.
1)Hold weekly online chats for any interested constituents. You can use free chat software, and set a weekly time where you will be available for input and ideas. Much as the Washington Post now regularly holds chats with authors, politicians should make a habit of being open with constituents. The habit of openness alone, knowing that you must regularly respond to unanticipated questions, will change how you govern.
2) Hold online consultations where your staff identifies 50-400 people (NOT the online opinion makers, but people who don’t generally have a voice) to engage in consultations on particular topics, using existing list-serv technology (yahoo or google groups work fine). In England, the Hansard Society has enabled several of these “online consultations” and found them very productive.
3) Wherever you post information online, provide an opportunity for people to connect laterally over these issues. If one of the issues on your website is “Energy” include a section that asks for solutions, and another that asks for help on legislative research. Again, even if you have a static html site, you can link to a forum that is already set up to discuss these issues. Instead of having politicians’ policies in one place, and discussions elsewhere, bridge the gap between lively sites like this and static sites like this.
4) Put your daily schedule on the Internet, including all meetings. Just as you put your public campaigning schedule online, you should now allow people to know how you are spending the time they earned for you. (For the Sunlight Network’s effort to spur this new political habit, see (the Punch Clock Campaign).
5) List your overall priorities and general schedule for the upcoming four-to-five months, to engage people in the prioritization process.
6) Before you propose or sign any bill, put it online for at least three days for responses, and create “chat times” for discussions of the bills with staffers and constituents. There is a legislative proposal for this, Read the Bill,but in the meantime members of Congress can act on their own.
7) Follow the lead of Estonia, and create a forum where people can track, suggest and review legislation – and commit to having your staff review any that gets at least (x number) of people supporting it. American politicians should be chastened — Estonia started that website five years ago.
After this election, elected politicians should take the excitement around the Internet — the new literacy in YouTube, blogs, and chatrooms, that hundreds of up and down-ballot candidates learned this year –-take the profound political energy generated in e-mail lists and forum — and start applying it to the difficult work of governing in an open way.