Policy Review: Steven Clift in Rebooting America


To kick off our Policy Review blog series, I’d like to start with Steven Clift’s chapter from Rebooting America*, Sidewalks for Democracy Online.

While Clift’s essay presents a number of ideas about how technology should enhance our civic lives, I’d like to focus on the two ideas I see at the heart of his argument. First, that legitimate government is a function of the larger populace, and that that that citizenry finds an ideal expression in well organized communities. The second idea is that the values and mechanisms we recognize in real-world communities are most readily replicated through a familiar online tool — the email list.

The essay initially connects representative government with geography, suggesting that local policy consideration forms a foundation on which all government rests:

Representative democracy is based on geography, on people connecting with one another locally to react to and influence government. And yet, rarely does anything truly interactive happen online that enables citizens to jointly solve problems or to get directly involved in efforts to make their communities better. Democratic participation online is having the effect of disconnecting us from our physical place in the world, to our collective demise.

While I would place much more emphasis on the importance of reason in policy creation, choosing to emphasize discourse over a sense of place, Clifts emphasis on geography becomes clearer when he movingly explains the sort of discourse he’d like to cultivate:

When I was a child and my father had cancer, I remember neighbors coming to our assistance in our time of need. Today, with modern life keeping neighbors as strangers, we must use these new tools to break down barriers to community. You deserve the right to easily e-mail your immediate neighbors the morning after you’ve been burglarized without having to go door-to-door to collect e-mail addresses. We can balance safety and privacy with selective public disclosure of such personal contact information with an intelligent “unlisted to most” directory option that is not the all or nothing of today.

This is big “C” community and small “d” democracy. A collection of better-connected blocks, tied to broader neighborhood and community-wide online efforts will serve as the vibrant foundation we need for accountable and effective representative democracy right up to the Congress and president. You cannot force everyone to be neighborly, but the bonds of community can be restored and nurtured despite dual income families and the assault on time for community involvement.

Whether government is considered at its national level or at a municipal level, Clift’s vision — one of empathy, shared responsibility, and interconnectedness — gives us a better sense of the civic life he values.

While this might seem too sentimental to have any impact on executive branch tech policy, productive community and a shared stake in outcomes — the stuff of the communities Clift envisions — are the stuff of successful online organizing. Most of the successful email lists I’m on, many of which I describe here, are public and open, but also function through the same sense of trust and connection praised in small communities.

All of this is familiar to Clift, of course, who has been a longtime community email list organizer.

I am helping build an online neighborhood forum that will soon connect 10% of the households daily (in an area with 10,000 residents) where I live in Minneapolis. Every neighborhood should have an online space (see links to E-Democracy.Org’s Issues Forums and projects like Vermont’s Front Porch Forum, and the academic i-Neighbors project from E-Democracy.Org/nf). We also need tools that allow people who live within a block of one another to connect many-to-many in secure, semi-public ways. This builds on the simple directory idea above and extends it to support all sorts of exchanges, from babysitting referrals to communicating as a group with city hall about potholes.

As the incoming Obama administration thinks about how to harness the enthusiasm generated by a campaign saturated with ideas about organizing community, they’d do well to listen to the advice of organizers like Steven Clift, who have thought long and hard about how to build civic communities online that are the best of both worlds, giving all the capabilities possible through digital technology without losing the intimate connection of a local email list.

While the policy consequences for transition organizers aren’t exactly clear, Clift has suggestions for the rest of us, including the following:

I have shared some big ideas that will help us make progress over the long term. But what can each one of us do now, today, to restore our democracy? A. Join or create place-based forums or blogs for your neighborhood or community. Recruit 100 people, require the use of real names, and open up your own local forum. Learn more at E-Democracy.Org/if. Be sure to give people a choice to participate by e-mail or online. B. Work with your elected officials to introduce legislation requiring all public meetings to be announced on the Internet. Updating open meeting laws to first require announcements, then agendas, handouts, digital recording, is a good starting point. Learn more at DoWire.Org. C. Tag the content you produce with geographic terms or “geo tag” if you are technically inclined.

Regardless of how online communities might change with a President who values them, we can be sure that the email list will remain at the center of that organizing world, given its low price, simplicity, and unversality.

*Rebooting America was prepared by the Personal Democracy Forum, which is headed by Micah Sifry and Andrew Raseij, Senior Technology Consultants for the Sunlight Foundation.