View Thread > Internet & Society > Technology in Politics > Citizen policy advisors
This question is posed jointly by the Berkman Center and the Howard Dean campaign, specifically:
Jim Moore, Senior Fellow, Berkman Center
Kelly Nuxoll, Howard Dean Campaign
In 2004 you run a winning United States presidential campaign propelled almost entirely by grassroots support. Social software has made it possible for Americans to organize local campaign events, discuss political ideas and share their stories with one another. Gatherings in homes and restaurants encourage strangers to meet regularly and develop political communities. The night before the election, a Zogby poll indicates that 42% of Americans describe themselves as "re-engaged in politics"; a full 65% say they have developed some sort of new relationship with another person as a result of the campaign.
When accepting the victory, you seize the hands of two young programmers and deliver the sentence that has served as the message of your entire campaign: "The president doesn't have the power in this country. You have the power." Electrified, your supporters celebrate their win on blogs, listservs, messages boards, and in small groups gathered in living rooms and kitchens.
Now you are President of the United States, a position perceived by many as responsible for the health, safety, financial security and well-being of two-hundred sixty million people, plus the peace and prosperity of the entire world. You are also responsible to the mandate of your campaign -- to change the role of the president of the United States, shifting power from the White House and to the American people. The night after you are elected, you receive 2 million email messages from supporters. Not surprisingly, each supporter seems to believe that he or she has been elected co-president and stands ready to guide your domestic and foreign policy.
How do you, elected on a platform of citizen empowerment, govern? What opportunities and challenges are made possible by the personal relationships and communities that your campaign has established? How will your government be shaped by social software and political engagement? What is your personal role as president?
As President, you have the opportunity to encourage broad citizen engagement in government problem-solving and policymaking. Your challenge, from both a practical and a philosophical standpoint, is to avoid substituting government by cyber-referendum for government by opinion polls.
You can, however, encourage ongoing citizen involvement by policy and by example. Each government agency can be charged with the task of establishing online citizen advisory groups to discuss policy challenges and collaboratively formulate policy recommendations. Agency heads and Cabinet secretaries can be made responsible for demonstrating how such citizen policy recommendations have been incorporated into the workings of their agencies. This includes posting citizen recommendations on their web sites for review and comment, as well as addressing the impact of such reports on high-level policy deliberations.
You can also see to it that citizen policy advisors (that is, active online participants who may have no leadership role in recognized activist groups) are regularly invited to serve on real-world commissions and advisory bodies that are currently closed to "ordinary Americans." These should include Presidential as well as agency-level commissions and advisory bodies.
In addition, in collaboration with the states, you can make voter registration a government priority. Building on "motor voter" programs, Federal agencies such as the Postal Service and the Social Security Administration can play a role in facilitating voter registration. A secure online voter registration process might also be developed, if it is possible to do so in a manner that ensures the highest levels of cybersecurity.
You should also make it a priority to make secure internet access and internet training more readily available to citizens of all ages, races, and economic levels. This includes increased allocations to schools and libraries, as well as the placement of freely available terminals in other public places. You should promote and fund the development of cyberliteracy projects that reduce the "digital divide" and emphasize the link between the internet and citizen involvement in government -- as well as the link, apparently not obvious to half of American adults, between citizen involvement and voting.
Last, but certainly not least, you can do everything within your power to strip away the provisions of the "PATRIOT" Act and other statutes that unduly infringe on citizen privacy. To take full advantage of the promise and power of online citizen involvement, you must be able to assure even the newest of newbies that their privacy will not be compromised by such wholesale invasions as the "PATRIOT" Act allows.
And, by the way, for those portions of the "PATRIOT" Act that may remain in force, you can use your bully pulpit to change its unfortunate, inaccurate soubriquet.
I'm not sure how far a cyber-constituency can be expanded by these means, even if they are each noble goals. There will always be less-than-engaged citizens, no matter how convenient we make it. The goal of expanding cyber-citizenship shouldn't be to replace more conventional means of citizenship; it should be to provide more accessible paths to involvement. Still, whatever can be done to expand involvement should be done.
I think these kinds of measures could vastly increase levels of participations, with the key point being that the policy making agencies have to demonstrate that citizen participants' contributions are being taken seriously. Most folks are very good at knowing when they are being ignored and will quickly lose interest in that case. That being said, I think you are right that the vast majority of folks are basically lazy and will not get involved in the political process to any large degree. However, if we can increase the number of actively involved folks who have a significant voice from the 0.1% that it is today to, say, 10%, that's a couple orders of magnitude difference and would have a huge impact on the nature of our policy making process.
Cyber-citizenship has already been used to expand public participation. I agree that active cyber-participants should be included on advisory boards and commissions, but only if they meet the necessary qualifications. The purpose should not be to replace traditional means of citizenship, nor circumvent the need for active involvement in an endeavor. It is one of many methods.
The lack of public interest in the political process or any area of government is no reason to deny the impact of multiple channels of participation.