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The Three Branches of We.Gov

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, September 14 2009

There’s a very interesting confluence of conversations taking place at the moment on the topic of how technology is changing politics. One is on the idea of government 2.0, or government-as-a-platform. The second is on whether the net is better for campaigning than governing. And the third is on what happens when you open up the process with real-time transparency. Let me see if I can combine the threads.

1. Can we "co-create" government?
First, the notion of “Government 2.0” is on the rise. In particular, thanks to the energetic efforts of Tim O’Reilly, the idea that we can perhaps improve on the current dynamics surrounding government-as-vending-machine (we put in money as taxpayers, we get out services, and when we’re unhappy with the latter, we shake the vending machine with frustration) by considering the possibilities of government-as-a-platform. That is, government should open up its information holdings and processes as much as possible and invite citizens in to build useful services on top of that.

O’Reilly points to the ways civilian services like the Weather Channel and the whole family of car-mapping gizmos have been built on top of free data brought to you by the like of NOAA and NASA as an example of what he means, and more recent experiments like the Apps for America tools built by freelance coders on top of the Data.gov repository (prompted by Sunlight Foundation’s contest*) as harbingers of what is possible. There’s an excellent back-and-forth on this notion of viewing government as a platform over on the Gartner blog network, where Andrea DiMaio spells out several cogent reasons why government can’t be reconceived as an open platform, and O’Reilly responds in the comments on her post.

For me, the most inspiring part of the "government-as-a-platform" idea is not so much the commercial or nonprofit service applications that can be built on top of public data, but the social and civic engagement hubs that are yet to come. That means not only inviting citizens to "co-create" better government by opening up the bureaucracy to contributions from volunteers (think everything from the "Peer to Patent" program to the TSA making policy changes in response to comments on its "Evolution of Security" blog to the OSTP's experiments in public engagement in policy-drafting around the Open Government Initiative), but a new kind of We.gov approach that offers a citizen-centric entry-point and gathering place for all of us to connect to and with government around the needs and interests that most concern us as individuals AND groups. (See Ali Felski's proposed redesign of USA.gov as one example of what I mean, or make yourself a profile page on OpenCongress for another.)

2. Is the net only good at "stop energy"?
The second thread that has been surfacing in recent days with some force (though it’s always been there) is that the internet is mostly good for the campaigning process and not very good for the governing process. One of the best statements on this problem was made, not surprisingly, by Clay Shirky, writing last year in the PdF book Rebooting America:

We all know and love these stories of collective political action enabled by new tools. Mobile phones were essential in organizing protestors and forcing the resignation of Filipino President Joseph Estrada in 2001. And now, the Web is being used to organize the pro-Tibet protests dogging the 2008 Olympic torch. These are great stories, and they bode well for a reinvigoration of political protest worldwide.

However, they all share the same characteristic, one that is true of many examples of collective action: they rely on stop energy. The usual stories of collective action have to do with short-term pressure brought upon existing institutions to try to stop them from doing something. Generally, the goal of the action is some sort of capitulation—someone resigns from office, some proposed law is defeated, and so on. There are comparatively few examples of groups using new digital tools to start or sustain long-term political action.

More recently we see this argument in analysis like "The Curse of my.BarackObama.com" by Dennis Powell, writing on New Geography.com and James P. Othmer on today’s New York Times oped page ("Don't Tweet About Health Care"). Noting how astutely the Obama campaign harnessed social networking and word-of-mouth online organizing, Powell writes:

…The same technology that Obama developed to win an election just nine months ago is now being successfully used to organize grassroots opposition to his policies. What started as “Tea Parties” across America has developed into a broad based uprising opposing Obama’s health care initiative. The opposition has found its voice and it is spreading its word virally. These communications are quickly outpacing our political leader’s ability to spin issues.

….The usual tactics to stem the latest grassroots tide are not working. The more politicians talk down the protesters defining them as “un-American” the more energy it provides. Sarah Palin’s post on her blog that the health care bill contained “death panels” worked virally through networks with resounding speed. The result was the Senate removed the provision (end of life counseling) from its bills rather than risk a protracted fight in cyberspace.

How is this happening? People are organizing around information in real time. Visit Drudge Report, Huffington Post and Politico every day and you can read and see politics happening in every corner of America. With YouTube you can be there at a town hall meeting hosted by Barney Frank on the left or Michelle Bachman on the right. You can take this content and send it into your social networks like Facebook, Linkedin, MySpace or hundreds of other platforms. Ordinary Americans can now instigate discussions, mold and change opinion and do it all under the radar. This is fundamentally changing our politics.

President Obama and Congress both now have to deal with the curse of MyBO.com. Social networking has enabled Americans to organize in new ways. Grassroots and community organizing are no longer the sole domain of the political left. In real time every misstep and piece of misinformation works its way into public dialogue on blogs, YouTube and websites where political thought is collected, dispersed and refined.

We can leave aside whether or not the “uprising” against Obama’s health-care initiative is truly “broad-based” or not, because for the purpose of the current political game, it doesn’t matter, as long as it gets a substantial amount of attention in the media ecosystem. In that respect, Frank Rich's latest Sunday column is absolutely right. After a brilliant campaign where the Obama team learned to “flood the zone” with media messages and visuals reinforcing the public’s desire for change in Washington, Obama’s political operation left the health care playing field to be defined by others. Rich writes:

It’s not, as those on the right would have us believe, that Obama’s ideas are so “liberal” that the American public recoiled. It’s that much of the public didn’t know what his ideas were. Even now I’m not convinced that most Americans know what a “public option” really means or what Obama’s precise position on it is. But I’d bet that many more have a working definition of “death panels.” The 24-hour news cycle abhors a vacuum, and the liars and crazies filled it while Obama waited for his deus ex machina descent onto center stage.

In politics, organized minorities have almost always mattered more than disorganized majorities, and there’s no question the internet is making it much easier to forge a rapid-response “micro-mass” of angry voters aimed at Congress than ever before. It doesn’t hurt if those groups get a push from cable TV, but with Twitter and YouTube alone a relatively small group—say, those 50,000 or so protesting Tea Partiers in DC last week--can convince themselves that they were actually an assemblage of one or two million.

But it is too early to draw conclusions from the current health care wars, as James Othmer does in his short NYTimes oped. ("The right has been very effective in using new media to stir up emotions. The left has found the same media to be much less effective for articulating big ideas.") Just because President Obama hasn’t (yet?) figured out how to use both broadcast media (the top-down, bully-pulpit, nationally-televised speech to a Joint Session of Congress being the epitome) AND social media, doesn’t mean that the internet's sole impact on politics is to ensure that the outsider opponents of whatever government is trying to do will always have the upper hand.

There are a combination of factors at work here, some that are built into the operating system of Washington DC as it now stands, and thus harder to change, and others that simply come down to human error. In the latter category, it’s now quite apparent that the Obama team made an understandable but critical mistake last winter when it allowed the Democratic National Committee to let go of hundreds of trained field organizers after the election (losing much hard-earned local smarts from Howard Dean’s “fifty state program”) and, even worse, failed to keep investing in the MyBO-style online-offline organizing operation, especially by building it out into the states that had been neglected during last fall’s focus on the swing states crucial to Obama's electoral college victory. Organizing for America, the Obama campaign successor organization, appears to be slowly gaining energy as it engages the health-care fight, but it is truly bizarre to see its talented organizers needing to completely rebuild their grass-roots muscles just months after fielding the most fired-up field operation in American presidential history.

3. How real-time transparency is changing Washington's operating system
But what about the operating system of Washington, DC? Are we fated to a new kind of political gridlock, where hyper-powered micro-masses charge up Capitol Hill week after week, storming against whatever the latest real or pseudo outrage may be and snarling the legislative process even more that it already is? Or can more transparency and citizen participation in the process tilt the playing field away from special interests and towards the common good?

That's the third thread that I want to weave into this conversation, the emerging power of real-time transparency when combined with platforms for meaningful engagement. So far, we have only gotten a glimpse of what is possible in this space from a few experiments in online fundraising. Starting with Howard Dean's "bat" and moving forward to the Ron Paul "money bombs," we've seen significant jumps in civic participation when a community with a passionate cause gets real-time feedback on their individual actions. Paul Blumenthal has a fascinating meditation on how this played out in the "You lie" episode with South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, where the Democratic challenger in that district, Rob Miller, benefited from an immediate and self-reinforcing surge of financial support from small donors on ActBlue, the Democratic hub for campaign fundraising.

Blumenthal points out that current campaign finance law--a cornerstone of Washington's current operating system--only requires quarterly reporting of campaign contributions. Once upon a time, you could see why that was considered sufficient, but in an age where a majority of campaign donations are probably flowing into candidate coffers electronically, there's no technical reason why they couldn't be reported in real-time, or within a matter of days after the fact. As Blumenthal writes:

...why shouldn’t this just be the norm? Campaign contributions are viewed by the law as a form of speech. If we see real time disclosure of campaign funding help increase individual desire to contribute, isn’t this a boon for speech and democratic participation? Donating to a campaign is a step above voting, in terms of participation, and can lead to further political actions like volunteering or even getting involved in local politics. Campaigns could simply forward their contributions on to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in a timely, maybe not immediate, manner and the FEC could report the contributions in real time. This could increase transparency, campaign enthusiasm and small donor power across the board.

The same goes for lobbying activities, including the funding of grass-roots campaigns. Why not require lobbyists, as well as organizations asking their members to contact Congress, to make more timely disclosures of who specifically they're lobbying and on what topics? Today, domestic lobbying disclosure laws only require a general statement of which chamber of Congress a lobbyist is aiming to influence, not what Members or bills. Likewise, as anyone following the slow-moving development of Recovery.gov, Obama's flagship project for transparency around government spending, we don't have much of a picture of how government spends our money, or even an infrastructure for accurately collecting and sharing that information. And the same goes for the bill-drafting process; much of Congress's work takes place during committee markups of bills, but unless you are sitting in the room as that happens (or watching a live web-stream) you have no real idea what is going on.

But imagine a more transparent democracy where we can all see more of what is being done by our representatives, who is trying to influence them, what comes out the other end--in something much closer to real-time--along with all of us being able to connect more efficiently to the information that matters to us, as well as to fellow citizens with similar concerns. At first glance, this looks like a recipe for even more gridlock than we have now.

Perhaps. But maybe this would also produce an intensely competitive environment challenging to all kinds of current middlemen--lobbyists, big donors, media gatekeepers, and interest groups. Removing some of the artificial barriers that keep citizens one step removed from the process (and thus dependent on middlemen) could also enable a flourishing of creative energies and shifting coalitions aimed at actually solving problems, rather than keeping them festering. Competition for attention and resources, along with the ability to watch each other and shine light on problem-makers and problem-solvers, could very well lead to more efficient and satisfactory results from government.

We really don't know, do we? But if you assume that all three of these trends--towards opening government up as a platform, towards greater direct citizen engagement with both the campaigning and the governing process via social media, and towards real time transparency--are going to continue to grow, then it's time to start planning for the brave new world ahead.

[*Full disclosure: I have been a senior adviser to the Sunlight Foundation since its founding in 2006.]