New Tech, Renewed Trust and a Less Lunatic Political Process

By David Moore, Executive Director, Participatory Politics Foundation

Chris Hayes, in his book Twilight of the Elites, writes: “The most important social project we must undertake…is reconstructing our institutions so that we once again feel comfortable trusting them. Because without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges.”

Unfortunately, in this effort, government reformers are starting from a serious crater. Gallup polling found that public approval of Congress hit a new low in August 2012—at 10 percent approval, Congress is less popular than the United States going communist. Distrust in media, meanwhile, is at an all-time high of 60 percent, per a Gallup study from this September. Voter turnout in our contemporary representative democracy (in national lower house elections) has averaged just 48 percent from 1960-1995, far behind other advanced democracies (for example, the United Kingdom at 76 percent). In 2008, 56.8 percent of our voting-age population went to the polls, less than India and Russia. The effects of disengagement and cynicism are widely recognized—we’re suffering from a massive deficit of public trust in the political process.

No matter what issues your organization focuses on, it’s likely they’re affected broadly by the federal branch with the “power of the purse”—our despised, corrupted U.S. Congress. Even those who consider themselves apolitical or less-than-engaged are affected by public policy decisions on transportation, health care, immigration and every imaginable issue. As Chris writes, it’s imperative to rebuild a legislative process that’s transparent, accountable, responsive and engaging. Again, the public-spirited among us face a roadblock—imposing structural issues remain in amending the U.S. Constitution. Despair seems like a pretty rational option when most U.S. citizens likely can’t name their state- or city-level legislators or write a check for thousands of dollars for access.

But there exists an agile, creative, social medium for the positive disruption of representative democracy: technology, especially free and open-source software and websites. By “positive disruption,” I mean the productive efficiencies produced and new possibilities opened up by technology over the past ten years: self-published blogging & social media on the Web; commercial startups launched and nonprofits organizing their communities online; market expansion through new Web services like Wikipedia and Airbnb and Netflix and more. Our nonprofit organization, the Participatory Politics Foundation, has worked since 2007 to increase civic engagement with user-friendly online tools for peer-to-peer sharing. Our flagship website, OpenCongress.org, has grown to become the most visited not-for-profit site in the world for tracking the U.S. Congress, with up to one million visits per month and over 300,000 registered users. OpenCongress is used by tens of thousands of people every day to learn, track, share and comment on bills in the news. Its free participation tools are used by issue-based organizations, and its huge databases of campaign contributions and vote comparisons are used by journalists and political bloggers.

Our next major project, OpenGovernment.org, will bring the OpenCongress model of engaging with elected officials to government at the state and city levels. Currently available in six state legislatures, we seek to roll out to all 50 states and a handful of cities, but our limiting factor is charitable funding for Web development time.

During our recent Philanthropy New York program, around 1:14 in, Chris Hayes was bullish in his analysis of the immediate impacts of digital tools for democratic participation in the here-and-now. “There’s also the cascade effects, which I think are important,” Chris said during the event. “One of the things that’s amazing about the way social media works is that the water-cooler effect is intensely magnified by this incredible increase in platforms that people have… one user getting a useful piece of information from DocumentCloud or from OpenCongress—more and more it is not the case that that just ends with that user…it is likely diffused quite a bit.”

I believe the open-government and open-data movements are still just at the beginning of what new software and Web tools will deliver for engagement. One place that PPF is looking at is collaborative bill text drafting and crowdsourced analysis—sometimes referred to in shorthand as “GitLaw”, after the Git version control system. The basic premise is that legislation is crafted in public view, with individuals taking responsibility for individual sections—to be sure, issue experts can still offer specialized input and niche legal questions can still be smoothed out, but all in a transparent forum. This is a reductive description of a more complicated process, but I think the fundamental premise is sound—as I wrote on the OC Blog in May, “Yes! Let’s move towards a version control system for legislation.” GigaOm recently reported that Finland would be experimenting with such a system through a platform called Open Ministry. A second major breakthrough to watch is the concept known as Liquid Democracy, built on three-year-old software known as LiquidFeedback—in summary, “a new communication channel between voters and representatives.” This past March, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported on the German Pirate Party’s development of the toolset, while this May, TechPresident reported on how it works.

Towards our mission of increasing civic engagement with free-of-charge technology that’s fun to use and open to everyone, PPF seeks support and partnerships to work on both of these fronts: a more public legislative process and micro-actions for continual feedback. We believe that these new tools will not only ensure a more responsive and effective government here in the United States as we head into 2013, but also that they’re necessary for a trustworthy political process in the digital era.

I welcome comments and questions, and would love the chance to chat in more detail about our ideas for new interfaces for Liquid Democracy in the United States. We’re easy to reach and ready to start building, all for the public benefit.


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