A Government By the People

The White House announces plans for a “collaborative democracy,” in which citizens can participate.

Just a few days ago, President Barack Obama and his staff announced their Open Government Directive. In a memo, beginning with the lines, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” the White House announced its intentions to work toward a form of “collaborative democracy,” in which citizens would be able to input their ideas and contributions toward governance.

With programs like Peer-to-Patent already around, collaborative government seems closer than ever. Its tool? The Internet. Or, the “tubes,” as disgraced former senator Ted Stevens referred to them. The directive lays out a specific timetable that can be found online and that orders all executive departments to create “open government” websites within ninety days of December 8, 2009.

It seems quite clear that this is a major change in how citizens will be able to deal with government. What is the nature of the change? As Clay Shirky tells us, “the impulse to share important information is a basic one, but its manifestations have often been clunky.”

Back in the days of having to clip an article out of a newspaper, one had to do a great deal of work to share that information with a group. Now, with the advent of blogs, discussion forums, and other Internet technologies, it is “all but effortless” to share the information. Further, “forwarding the story to a group was as easy as forwarding it to an individual” — with this new open government directive, we see the same idea; with email and databases online, it is far easier for, say, federal employees of a department to search for and look at citizen contributions rather than having to open mail, read it, file it, and then dig through filing cabinets to find it again. In a collaborative government of the Internet era, citizens can submit proposed legislation online that can be viewed by anyone and instantly looked up with a database query.

Clearly, this change won’t come all at once. According to a recent Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans use the Internet at their home, business, or school. Only 61 percent of Americans use the Internet “frequently,” and even less (48 percent) use it for more than an hour per week.

Even more damning, only 26 percent of citizens describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat familiar” with blogs. It seems that citizen participation in government online would be limited to this group; blogs are a prime example of Internet interactivity, and if one is not familiar with them, it would be difficult to participate in any sort of online collaborative government.

Thus, it seems for at least some time that many of our old methods will remain in place, and that the majority of citizens will not be taking over writing legislation or regulations anytime soon. Until the bulk of the population becomes more familiar with the Internet, a collaborative online government will not reach a majority of the public. Indeed, this does seem to indicate that some sort of “digital divide” may come to affect this new collaborative government initiative.

This chart shows a comparison of Internet usage by education and income levels. As is to be expected, more educated people who make more money tend to use the Internet more, and are likely to be more familiar with it. We must expect that they will be the ones who would do more with this new collaborative government, as they have the tools and knowledge to participate both online and with politics.

There seems to be little we can do to close this gap, except to provide more universal education about the Internet and how to use it. Public schools with Internet access as well as free public libraries that provide access are excellent resources to those too poor to use computers. Classes in libraries that offer computer training will also be handy; devoting a portion of the budget for the Open Government Initiative to providing these classes would be a wise move on the part of the Obama Administration.

The benefits of collaborative democracy are obvious; many citizens of the United States who do not work for the federal government possess expertise across the spectrum of fields. As Beth Simone Noveck puts it:

The notion that government knows best is a myth. Even in the absence of bad intentions or personally corrupt motives, the bureaucrat or politician in Washington simply lacks access to the right information and useful ways of making sense of good science.

Someone with, for example, expertise in the cultivating of redwood trees could help the Department of the Interior draft regulations for government workers in the National Parks of California. Another person, who has been a truck driver for his or her entire life could offer practical advice to the government about highway safety laws and road design. The list goes on, but the short version is, citizens can offer valuable insight to government.

One of the problems the government will have to solve is the classic collective action problem — how will they get the citizens to contribute their expertise? This is clearly a major issue that will need to be addressed; perhaps the mere idea of helping one’s fellow citizens and having an effect on law will be enough for people to contribute. We’ll have to wait and see.

Major downfalls of this system include many of the same downfalls of the new Internet media in general: this collaborative government will be an example of publishing, then filtering. Any citizen will be able to give their ideas and advice to government, and the government will have to filter out the bad and find the good in the input they are getting.

Another danger, noted most famously in Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, is the danger of faction; the public may be so fractious and divided on issues that the government will have an overload of options but no clear solution. Collaborative government also presents an opportunity for the majority to tyrannize the minority or vice versa; if a large group of people from the minority contribute ideas on legislation without the knowledge of the majority, or if the majority mobilizes and contributes more than the minority, it may force regulation that is harmful to a large segment of the American populace.

This open government initiative certainly presents an interesting concept and it will be utterly fascinating to see what happens with it. I personally will be interested in the citizen legislation, and regulation, drafting processes. Will the American populace be up to it? Can we create, with our new technologies, a government truly by the people?


  1. I’m intrigued, this sounds like a step toward more direct democracy and that’s nice although there is the danger of under-representation as you rightly point out. In some cases though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Say, a bridge is being built—I’d much rather trust a group of engineers to decide what sort of bridge it must be than “the people” who don’t know enough about engineering and infrastructure to make that decision.

    In some smaller European states, like Latvia, IIRC, there are already experiments with democracy over the Internet, people being able to vote in elections and referenda online. It’s easier to pull off in a country that has only a few million people living in it of course. For the US, it’ll be much more of a challenge to provide each and every citizen with Internet access.

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