People Powered Politics or People Powered Governance?


I’d be remiss to fail to mention Liza Sabater’s pre-PDF Conference blog post, “The Cluetrain Manifesto for People Powered Politics.” In her post Sabater aims to do for politics what the Cluetrain Manifesto did for the business community. Writing, “Gone are the days in which engagement is only mediated by an elite ‘entrusted’ by the masses with every single policy and political decision making that will end up affecting their lives,” Sabater highlights a point that I find to be instrumental in understanding the changes that an Internet-enabled open and transparent government will enable. While Sabater focuses on the realm of elections, I’d like to take a look at her “Manifesto” in terms of governance. “Constituencies are conversations,” and they can be empowered to affect the legislative and governing process as well as direct the political process.

Citizens are online using government information to do their own watch-dogging, to make their voices heard on important legislative issues, and to create new ways to understand legislative and government information that not only aids other citizens but aids the governing process as well. One example connects directly with one of Sabater’s points:

“76. We’ve got some ideas for you too: some new tools we already use, some better services we’ve already produced. Stuff we’d be willing to pay you to use. Got a minute?”

Created by 20 Daily Kos users, the DOJ Documents database allows users to search through the enormous amount of e-mails relating to the Attorney purge investigation handed over to the House Judiciary Committee by the Department of Justice. This was made possible by the House Judiciary Committee posting the e-mails in large pdf files on their Web site. The committee understood that opening up the oversight process to citizens would provide additional labor at no cost while simultaneously making citizens feel like they have power to act in their government and can make a difference.

Dozens, if not hundreds or more, of citizens perused the documents and commented on them at blogs like TPM Muckraker and Daily Kos. The information that they uncovered enabled new conversations and new information to reach into the mainstream of American politics. The only problem these muckrakers discovered was the inability to search the documents. But this is the Internet and now we have a searchable database of these e-mails; a resource that is used by bloggers, journalists, and I presume could and has been used by staffers on the Judiciary Committee.

“87. We’d like it if you got what’s going on here…”

NZ Bear created a great tool to analyze, discuss, and dissect the “Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007.” Readers of the bill could access any section of the bill through hyperlinks created for each section. Each hyperlinked page allows for readers to comment and discuss the particular section of the bill. Imagine if every bill could get a public mark-up along with its committee mark-up. Citizens want to help you craft legislation that works and that will help you out when you come home for your district work weeks. Don’t explain your vote or bill to us after the fact, explain beforehand and let us talk back.

“63. … We want to talk to you.”

Utah State Rep. Steve Urquhart learned this by using wiki technology to bring his constituents and the people of his state together to discuss legislative issues. He gave them a space for conversation where they previously could only speak in one direction to their representative. Instead of complaining before an issue is understood or after a vote citizens could discuss, with their elected representatives, the merits of legislation or register their desire to see other legislation pass.

Really it’s true, we do want to talk to you. But we need elected representatives to get what’s going on here. We need more information and more data. We need it in a better format so that we can help you help us. What we need is for this information to be transparently available and open for all citizens to use, manipulate, and innovate with. And we need fewer restrictions on how you can talk to us.

The Open House Project is working towards this goal by advocating new ways to open Congress and creating new pathways for information flow. The recommendations of The Open House Project embrace fully the idea that politics is a conversation among constituencies that should not be closed off with improperly formatted information, elite barriers to information, and archaic restrictions.

John Wonderlich, the Open House director, lays out a similar argument in this post today. John also asks for readers and Open House participants to explain “what is it we’re trying to make possible?” What will transparency policies achieve?

Transparency reforms are essential to creating the networked politics and governance that Sabater and others are advocating. Transparency policies do not create good government through added restrictions, but rather by increasing public participation in the process. Good government occurs when people have a stake in what takes place, at the political level and the governance level. It occurs when citizens and politicians talk to each other and exchange information. It happens through conversations.

The U.S. Patent Office is a perfect example of an organization opening up the conversation. According to Beth Simone Novick, the Patent Office is utilizing these new networks created online to allow specialized citizens to review patents.

On June 15, for the first time in its 200+ year history, that process will be open to public participation. This will also be the first such social software experiment to connect directly to our legal and political institutions.

Not according to a traditional agency paradigm of indirect comments made by legal professionals nor by selecting professional scientists as peer reviewers but by setting in motion a social network that will connect directly to the legal decision-making process and allow self-selected experts – with or without any professional qualification – to submit information into the decision-making process.

So what we are able to do, for the first time, is to open up the patent examination process in an experiment – what are calling Peer to Patent – to allow an open community of self-selected experts to research, submit and rate information to be sent to the patent office.

Peer to Patent is premised on the idea that wisdom is not at the center, but in the crowd. While the people contributing to IMDB or Wikipedia might or might not be PhDs or CEOs, they are members of a community – empowered by the new tools for collaboratively managing and editing content online – to engage in the common pursuit of pooling knowledge into expertise. The structure to produce that expertise can be embedded in software and made real and useful to the “crowd.”

The Patent Office is not the only place in government where innovation is occurring. The Department of Health and Human Services recently unveiled a blog to focus on preparing for a pandemic flu outbreak. The blog brings together 16 experts from the business, health care, religious, and local level communities to discuss how government, individuals, and organizations can coherently respond to a possible pandemic disease outbreak. By getting the public involved in the conversation at an early stage the consequences of such a disaster could be mitigated to a greater degree than by creating a policy kept within the government. The conversation makes government work better.

Congress needs to adopt changes that open its walls and free its information so that people can participate in the conversation.

Already there are millions of conversations going on about how citizens can impact their government; how they can have a role in the process. Web sites are starting; databases are being created; doors are opening; walls are coming down.

“95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.”

For more of the 95 theses read Liza Sabater’s “The Cluetrain Manifesto for People Powered Politics.” And don't forget to visit The Open House Project to see ways that Congress can enable citizens to become empowered in the governing process.