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DevalPatrick.com: A Real Dialogue with Voters

BY Joshua Levy | Tuesday, April 3 2007

Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts, has rolled his old campaign web site into a new site that opens the door to citizens who want to directly propose and discuss important issues, and for the Governor himself to get into the fray. In doing so, he is going where no top elected official in America has ever gone before -- into a real online dialogue with constituents about the decisions that affect their lives. Here's hoping the presidential candidates take notice.

The site revolves around something called MyIssue, “an online tool to help you participate in shaping the direction of your community and Massachusetts.  It is where you can identify and present an issue that matters to you and then organize around it.”   It says that the governor keeps track of everyone’s efforts and will even comment on issues that get a lot of support.

Jon Garfunkel, who writes the blog Civilities, wrote last week that this is not the first time someone has come up with this kind of issue-voting platform. 
It’s basically a variant of a scoreboard voting forum, where people can post ideas and virtually caucus together to push them. There’s actually been many names for this sort of technology, which is why people keep reinventing it differently. MoveOn.org created ActionForum back in January 2000 to do just this. And despite the best of controls (requiring the use of real names), they suspended it in 2004, and again in 2006, likely indefinitely.
But it is, to our knowledge, the first time an American governor has used the web to reach out this directly to his constituents.  Although the site needs many more participants to make it a viable platform, its launch appears to have already gotten some interest. After it was launched on March 24, reports the Boston Globe, advocacy groups like the Conservation and Recreation Campaign began telling their members to log on and vote for their issues. Tom Philbin, the Conservation and Recreation Campaign's director, was excited about the site. "We are here to raise awareness of the underfunding of parks. We'd be foolish not to jump on the opportunity to take this directly to the governor."

Using the site is fairly straightforward. On the MyIssue page are instructions for signing up for the site, and a list of the issues with most votes.  The top five most popular issues are “Equal Marriage Rights in Massachusetts” (516 votes), “Shared Parenting” (480 votes), “Coalition: Vote on Marriage” (388 votes), “Making Renewable Energy Work in the Commonwealth” (297 votes), and “Coalition: Chapter 70 Coalition” (227 votes).  It is fairly easy for voters to introduce separate issues that are closely related, or even the same.  These “coalitions” are apparently intended to solve this problem my grouping similar issues together.  It’s a good idea.

Each issue has its own page, on which you can vote for or against the proposal, the idea being that the more popular an issue — the issue with the highest total of for and against — the more likely the Governor will approach it. 

The site makes it fairly easy to add your own issues to the mix; it involves creating a profile, introducing an issue, and getting the word out to family and friends.  Prominently displayed in a left-hand sidebar are the “Featured Issues” (marriage rights, municipal partnership, and renewable energy), which are presumably issues the Governor stands for, though a “coordinator”, rather than the Governor, articulates the position.

The Boston Globe noted last week that “the site is also a perfect vehicle for paid staff members of advocacy groups that want more money for their programs or a way to capture the freshman governor’s attention.”  Translation: while the site opens up the legislative process to everyone, everyone includes lobbyists. Right now any lobbyist could advocate for a position on the site without anyone knowing it; the trick will be to find a balance between a potential chorus of lobbyists and the smaller, individual voices that are crucial to the success of the site.

When I first visited the site, I wondered why it is still called DevalPatrick.com, considering it’s supposed to be for and of the citizens of Massachusetts, not Deval Patrick?  Why not make it a .gov site? 

Just before the site launched last week, Dan Kennedy, who writes the blog Media Nation, asked just that question: "If Gov. Deval Patrick wants to use the Web as a governing tool, as his supporters say, then shouldn’t he be doing it here? Why should we look at the soon-to-be-unveiled DevalPatrick.com site as anything other than part of his permanent campaign?” 

The Massachusetts politics blog .08 Acres asked Patrick about using his old campaign site's URL instead of a .gov address:

He explained that his site was intended to be a place to build communities online, whereas mass.gov was mainly an information based, non-interactive site -- and one that needed a fair amount of work to be made more effective as it is. He did not think it was appropriate for people to engage in political organization on the public servers, something which might cause ethics problems. The purpose of his site is not just to contact the governor, which could be done at the state's website, but is to move and influence government, and that means lobbying state reps, writing letters to the editor, and connecting with other people. These are political activities and it seemed that he felt uncomfortable with putting them on the state-owned servers.

While this is a convincing case for not using the state government's servers or existing sites, I'm not sure naming the site "DevalPatrick.com" is the answer either. A commenter on Kennedy's blog suggested going "the Howard Dean route -- turning Dean for America into Democracy for America," I think something similar would work for Governor Patrick. The domain is registered to his political committee -- the contact is Liz Morningstar, the executive director of the committee.

In any event, the prominently-placed “Contribute” button on the home page certainly complicates things. If this is supposed to be a safe space for voters on both sides of the aisle to introduce and discuss big issues, isn’t that non-partisan spirit somewhat diluted by a giant “Contribute” button that asks you to send money to the Democratic “Team Patrick”?  Massachusetts Liberal wonders if the site “really is nothing more than a permanent online campaign.” 

While I tend to chafe at the idea of a Deval Patrick-branded citizen-powered site, it’s significant that he’s opened up the process this much, using this or any other URL.  Since the site just launched in the last week, expect more features and usage scenarios to roll out over time.  Also, let's hope that at least one presidential candidate takes notice and considers something like it for their own campaign.