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Must-Read NY Times Article on Civic Participation, Open Gov't and Social Media

There was a fantastic article (‘Athens’ on the Net) by Anand Giridharadas in Sunday’s New York Times, on the relationship between civic participation, open government and social media.  This is a must-read for everyone involved in public dialogue and deliberation.  (Congratulations NCDD member Jim Fishkin, who is quoted several times in the article!)

Part of the article is below; read the full article at www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/weekinreview/13giridharadas.html?_r=1.

‘Athens’ on the Net

September 13, 2009, New York Times


Perhaps the biggest big idea to gather speed during the last millennium was that we humans might govern ourselves. But no one really meant it.

What was really meant in most places was that we would elect people to govern us and sporadically renew or revoke their contracts. It was enough. There was no practicable way to involve all of us, all the time.

The headlines from Washington today blare of bailouts, stimulus, clunkers, Afpak, health care. But it is possible that future historians, looking back, will fixate on a quieter project of Barack Obama’s White House: its exploration of how government might be opened to greater public participation in the digital age, of how to make self-government more than a metaphor.

President Obama declared during the campaign that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That messianic phrase held the promise of a new style of politics in this time of tweets and pokes. But it was vague, a paradigm slipped casually into our drinks. To date, the taste has proven bittersweet.

Federal agencies have been directed to release online information that was once sealed; reporters from Web-only publications have been called on at news conferences; the new portal Data.gov is allowing citizens to create their own applications to analyze government data. But the most revealing efforts have been in “crowdsourcing”: in soliciting citizens’ policy ideas on the Internet and allowing them to vote on one another’s proposals.

During the transition, the administration created an online “Citizen’s Briefing Book” for people to submit ideas to the president. “The best-rated ones will rise to the top, and after the Inauguration, we’ll print them out and gather them into a binder like the ones the president receives every day from experts and advisors,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, wrote to supporters.

They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing — not so much to the administration as to us, the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online “brainstorm” about making government more transparent. Good ideas came; but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate.

Read the rest of the article at www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/weekinreview/13giridharadas.html?_r=1

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Ralph Kelly says:

    Thanks, Dawn, for calling attention. I did read this last Sunday and my thought then, as it is now, "Nothing beats face to face for a conversation and making meaning." I have a suspicion that those in this nation/world who might really make deep and thoughtful contributions to such well-intentioned queries are reading and responding in forms of media other than the internet. How and where and in what format might deep and extended dialogue and meaning making take place these days? And where might we engage with that?

  2. NY Times reporter concludes, "A search is on for the right metaphor. What is the new role for government — a platform? a vending machine, into which we put money to extract services? a facilitator? And what, indeed, is the new role for us — the ones we’ve been waiting for?"

    What do I think? Here's my hypothesis: The role of citizens is to co-create with lawmakers in specific ways as delegates to the public policymaking process. The role of government is to be a platform and facilitator of best methods and practices to protect, execute, and legislate the consent of the governed which votes on solutions. Only in this relationship of roles can citizens and government be properly held accountable for their own actions and take responsibility for their rights as citizens.

  3. I read the article. Wonder where dialogue and deliberation fit in all of this? What has happened to reflection, synthesis and analysis?

    Soliciting and getting people to respond without a process of reflection, dialogue and deliberation is not enough!

  4. Ed says:

    For people interested in massively participatory democracy, please explore the Metagovernment project (which I am surprised to see omitted from this article).

    Metagovernment is a global community of people and projects supporting the development and use of internet tools which enable the members of any community to fully participate in the governance of that community.

    The focus for the time being is on very small communities, not large national governments. The feeling is that democracy can better be transformed on a small scale, where experimentation and learning are more possible. As we learn from those smaller communities, we can then scale as the technology adapts.

    The Metagovernment website is at http://metagovernment.org/ and of course, everyone is welcome to participate.

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