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Participatory Government's Growing Pains? Evolving from Direct Democracy to Citizen Lobbying

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, March 23 2009

Apps for Democracy, the programming contest that may well have put Vivek Kundra within spitting distance of the Oval Office, is talked about as one of the success stories of Internet-enabled participatory democracy. And so it was natural that it spawned Apps for America, a contests launched by the Sunlight Foundation's Sunlight Labs. Give Americans good, clean, timely government data and some not negligible financial incentive -- the thinking goes -- and the product of their work can extend the usefulness of government for the rest of us.

Jim Gilliam's White House 2 has long (long for this space, at least) been one of the hallmark projects of the social-web fueled approach to participatory government. ("We're imagining how the White House might work if it was run completely democratically by thousands of people on the internet.") As part of Apps for America contest, Gilliam has announced that he's rejiggering WH2 somewhat. First up, he's going back to the basics, and doing some formal introductions between the governed and the governors with Hello, Congress. Gilliam has also announced that WH2 is morphing from a revolutionary experiment in direct democracy to something more like a Wikipedia for those on Capitol Hill. The goal is to balance out the traditional wisdom of lobbyists with the untapped wisdom of the masses. "I'm very excited about the potential for White House 2 as a citizen-powered think tank," he writes. "[S]taffers are totally overworked, but they still have to pull together mountains of research and legislation for their boss."

The Apps for America contest wraps next Tuesday, and as Gilliam notes, there are just three submissions thus far. That's pretty great news for Gilliam, as that gives him some pretty good odds for winning the $15,000 top cash prize. It's less useful for staffers and consultants eager to convince governments that devoting resources to releasing data to the wilds of the Internet is a worthwhile endeavor, and that the public is just begging for it. That said, the data sets offered up to programmers (fundraising data, lobbyist records) is somewhat limited and scope. And there's still plenty of time for developers to get their apps in.