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An Open Letter to PdF Participants

This Open Letter for Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) participants was written by Matt Leighninger in June 23, 2008 – right before the PdF conference. It can also be found at www.personaldemocracy.com/blog/entry/1964/an_open_letter_to_pdf_participants.

Welcome to the Table of Power, Bloggers: Are you democratic revolutionaries or just another interest group?

Dear bloggers, online activists, Internet advocates, and digital journalists:

You’ve arrived. No matter what else happens between now and November 5th, with this election you can lay claim to a permanent place at the political table. It is abundantly clear that the ways in which candidates raise money, recruit volunteers, and reach voters have been irrevocably changed by your online work.

It has received less attention, but you’ve also arrived in local politics. The ways in which people meet their neighbors, talk about public problems and opportunities, organize activities, and interact with local officials have also changed irrevocably.

Those local efforts are part of a larger democratic transition (as I wrote about in The Next Form of Democracy) that is reshaping the relationship between citizens and government. Ordinary people are more capable, confident, and skeptical than ever before. Citizens may have less time for public life, but they bring more knowledge and skills to public problem-solving. They feel more entitled to the services and protection of government, and yet have less faith that government will be able to deliver on those promises. They are less connected to community affairs, and yet they seem better able to find the information, allies, and resources they need to affect an issue or decision they care about. Online communication has greased the skids for all of these changes. Overall, 21st Century citizens seem better at governing, and worse at being governed, than ever before.

In response to these trends, local officials and other kinds of leaders (including online organizers and activists) are attempting many different civic experiments – some successful, some not – to help their communities function more democratically and more effectively. In the last ten years, these kinds of projects have proliferated dramatically, allowing hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens to address policy issues such as race, crime, education, corrections, immigration, growth and sprawl, youth development, public finance, community-police relations, and economic development. (For some of these stories, see http://helpline.deliberative-democracy.net/ or www.everydaydemocracy.org.)

The best examples of these efforts employ four successful principles:

  1. They recruit people by reaching out through the various groups and organizations to which they belong, in order to assemble a large and diverse “critical mass” of citizens.
  2. They involve those citizens in a combination of small- and large-group discussions: structured, facilitated small groups (either online or face-to-face or both) for informed, deliberative dialogue; and large forums for amplifying shared conclusions and moving from talk to action.
  3. They give the people who participate the opportunity to compare values and experiences, and to consider a range of views and policy options.
  4. They effect change in a number of ways: by applying citizen input to policy and planning decisions; by encouraging change within organizations and institutions; by creating teams to work on particular action ideas; by inspiring and connecting individual volunteers; or all of the above.

Your skills and imagination could propel this shift even further, helping to meet some of the interesting challenges and opportunities that emerge as citizens take more active roles in governance. The Internet holds immense potential not just as a forum for discussion, but as:

  • A vehicle for tracking and measuring public engagement processes. Online platforms could track questions such as: How many people are participating? How diverse and representative are they? Are they satisfied with how the process is going?
  • A force for accountability. Online systems could help people answer questions like: How was citizen input used by public officials on a particular policy decision or plan? Have community organizations of various kinds – neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses – made decisions or taken action on the issue? Have individual citizens volunteered their time to help address a public problem?
  • A way to make public discussion more civil and productive. Groups like e-democracy.org, Ascentum, e-thepeople, and Information Renaissance have developed online platforms that use a variety of techniques (moderation, facilitation, no anonymous participants, etc.) to ensure respect and civility, and that focus the conversation on points where citizens can gain the greatest traction.

So you clearly have the capacity, in these and many other ways, to accelerate and amplify this shift toward more democratic forms of governance. Online technology can bring the political system closer to the people, can dramatically enlarge the number and diversity of people who participate in public life, and can help them participate in much more intensive and productive ways.

On the other hand, simply making more information available online, and providing more arenas for people to comment on it, is unlikely to produce these changes, or even to support them in a significant way. Online commentators could simply become another chattering class, another set of voices trying to pressure public officials and dig out damning details. Without attending to the other elements of successful democratic governance – recruitment, deliberation, facilitation, action planning, etc. – the democratic impact of the new technology may be positive but limited.

Making politics more “open” is a terrific priority – but if that’s all you do, then you’ll just be making a space for yourselves at the political table and not welcoming in the people with less time, less education, less confidence, less faith in government and community, and/or a lower level of technological skills. It is a pattern repeated often in American history: one group gets into the smoke-filled room, then closes the door on the others following behind.

Your response to this may be: “So what! We’re opening things up – if people don’t care enough to participate, we’ll govern without them!” If so, it would be helpful to say this now; it would clarify that online commentators and activists constitute a powerful new interest group in American politics.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s what you want. The alternative – clarifying the role you want to play as democratic revolutionaries – will require more attention to what is happening on the ground in local politics, not just what is happening in the ether of the presidential campaign.

Matt Leighninger
Deliberative Democracy Consortium

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