Posts about government

When your organizers organize you

Ari Melber happens upon what could be an important moment in the history-in-the-making of participatory, self-organized online politics: Barack Obama supporters used his own network to organize a protest against his actions on telecom immunity.

Picture 21

Now if a campaign is going to argue that it’s truly grassroots, what is it to do with a revolt or protest from within? I’ve argued since Howard Dean’s run in 2004 that campaigns aren’t or can’t really be bottom-up when it comes to policy. They are necessarily propagandistic: This is what the candidate says. Indeed, Dean’s supporters acted like white blood cells in his blog discussions quite effectively surrounding and strangling dissent and opponents in the bloodstream. That’s the way campaigns have to work if you’re going to decide what this guy stands for and whether to vote for him, right? It’s about the message, no?

Ah, but when it’s a grassroots organization that makes you — rather than a party — and you say you’re beholden to them not to special interests and big money and lobbyists, well, then you really are beholden to them. If they rise up from within to tell you that they don’t like what you’re doing — when they use your own organizational tools to do that — then I’d say you ignore them at your peril. Live by the crowd, die by the crowd.

It so happens that I agree with Obama on this issue (and I know my view is as unpopular as his). When government forces you do to something then that force must come with immunity. The problem is not the telcos going along but the government making the demand and there being no check on that. But that’s a different debate.

I have disagreed with other things Obama has done since getting the nomination. I am profoundly disappointed in him for his decision to turn down government campaign financing. He stood on expediency not principle. I also find tragic irony in the fact that the best reason to vote for him is to turn around the Supreme Court before it is too late (if it isn’t already) and yet Obama endorsed just the kind of decision I dread coming from a right-wing court: last week’s ruling on handgun bans. So should I go into MyBarackObama and try to organize pressure groups from within who agree with me? Should I encourage my fellow Hillary Clinton supporters — now that we’re all unified — to do likewise to try to get him to promise truly universal health coverage? Why not? In the open organization, what’s yours is mine.

I find two things fascinating about this: First, we are beginning to see a campaign built openly on coalitions. Even though I disagree with them, I am happy to see the anti-immunity lobby crack the monolithic, glassy-eyed facade of the Obama fan club (the sort of people who yell at me in my comments and tell me I’m not allowed to disagree with him about anything). Thank goodness we see disagreement and discussion — democracy — inside a campaign. I believe the greatest impact the internet will have on politics will be that it enables like-minded groups to find each other and organize apart from old organizations and labels (red, blue, Republican, Democrat); we will organize around issues and priorities rather than parties. See the comments under this post.

Second, I wonder what these self-organizing groups will look like when they get into power. The Deaniacs and Joe Trippi made valiant attempts to stay organized after their campaign melted but that didn’t work. If Obama gets into the White House, though, will his supporters at MyBarackObama continue to use these tools to influence him and government? And will he have to listen because he is beholden to them?

Government under Google

I upset a few — very few — people with my crack at the end of my NY Post op-ed suggesting that the government would be in better shape in the hands of Google than in those of the bureacrats and politicians who run it now.

Well, maybe it’s not so far-fetched.

When Eric Schmidt spoke to the Economic Club of Washington this week, he said:

It is possible to build a culture around innovation. It is possible to build a culture around leadership. And it is possible to build a culture around optimism. Google is an example, but by no means the only example, of a culture that can be built based on relatively scalable principles. We could run our country this way. We could run the world this way….

So let’s be revolutionaries. Let’s take this opportunity, this huge change that is before us, with technlology, and let’s change businesses, communications and the way we interact, on some new principles that reflect the very best of America.

That’s an apt rallying cry for the Personal Democracy Forum in just over a week.

Government by Twitter

Well, how’s this for cool: I was reading 10 Downing Street’s Twitter feed and found a link to a speech by blogging MP Tom Watson establishing a task force to implement recommendations in a Power of Information report to open up government data and to involve citizens in government using the social web. Watson said:

The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.

Mrs Watson is a regular user of Netmums. It’s a great site. Parents chat, and offer, I’ve been there, advice on everything from baby whispering to school admissions. Except it’s not just a handful of mums and dads, it’s thousands of them, available in your living room, 24 hours a day.

Sounds like hell well, it’s a lifeline when your baby’s screaming at four in the morning, you have no idea why and you just need to know you’re not alone. But my point is, imagine if quarter of a million mums decided to meet at Wembley Stadium to discuss the best way to bring up their kids. Midwives would be there dispensing advice. Health visitors, nursery teachers, welfare rights advisers would be there. Even politicians would try and get in on the act. But when twice this number chooses to meet together in the same place online, we just ignore them. That’s going to have to change. . . .

We also need to look at the way Government talks to itself. Whitehall is arguably Britain’s most important knowledge factory, but we’re using out of date tools. . . .

To do this within the system I would like to see more use of techniques commonplace now in the wider world, internal blogs, wikis, discussion forums, shared workspaces, all still quite rare within the machine. . . .

Here are some of the ideas I put forward on — what should we call it? — social government, open government, Google government.

: As an aside, there’s an amusing and very British dustup in Watson’s speech over accusations that he stole the idea of open-source the Tories. But, of course, if it’s open, how can anyone own it and thus how can it be stolen? Note also that underneath this is the start of a liberal-v-conservative clash of worldviews approaching open, digital, social government and society. I think that debate is revolving around whether the center of this activity is inside or outside of government and whether the market of ideas and information is sufficient in itself. Anyway, here’s Watson:

I said that I don’t believe the post-bureaucratic age argument. It’s just old thinking, laissez faire ideas with a new badge.

The future of government is to provide tools for empowerment, not to sit back and hope that laissez-faire adhocracy will suffice.

A post bureaucratic age misunderstands the idea of an enabling state one that moderates collaborative activity for a shared social good. The collaborative state still requires leaders and enablers, doers and thinkers. It still requires public services but services with boundaries porous to external ideas.

I said that ideologies that fail to comprehend the power of sharing, where activity is motivated by non-market production or where, as Stephen Weber says the traditional notions of property rights are inverted – are doomed to extinction.

And I talked about the three rules of open source: One, nobody owns it. Two, everybody uses it. And three, anyone can improve it.

Two days later a political opponent sent out an email laying claim that in fact they are the ‘owners’ of these new ideas. I was accused of plundering policies from the Conservatives.

The irony that laying claim to the ownership of a policy on open source was lost to the poor researcher who had spent a day dissecting the speech. He’d been able to do so easily because it was freely available on my blog, a simple tool used for communicating information quickly and at nearly zero cost without the requirement to charge for access.

The point is, who cares? It doesn’t matter who has the ideas. It’s what you do with them and how you improve on them that counts.

But politics will still be politics.

: Note also from Watson’s speech the incredible uptake of epetitions.

Over 7 million electronic signatures have been sent, electronically, to the Downing Street petition website [External website]. 1 in 10 citizens have emailed the Prime Minister about an issue. The next stage is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace.

London’s all a-twitter

At last week’s Citizen Journalism Meetup panel at NYU, when somebody brought up President Obama — cough — getting a 3 a.m. phone call, I joked that since he’s cool, instead he’d be getting 3 a.m. tweets.

Well, this morning, Richard Sambrook tells us that 10 Downing Street is Twittering and even responding.

Free the bills and more

The UK’s amazing They Work for You — citizen watchdog of government — has started a campaign calling on Parliament to put all bills in XML. I want that and not just for federal legislation but for actions of agencies, court rulings, budgets, and more. That’s what I mean below when I say that I want government to be searchable and that’s essentially what Obama means when he says he wants a standard format for government information.

They Work for You explains why:

Unless Parliament produces better bills:
* We can’t give you email alerts to tell you when a bill mentions something you might be interested in.
* We can’t tell you what amendments your own MP is asking for, or voting on.
* We can’t help people who know about bills annotate them to explain what they’re really going on about for everyone else.
* We can’t build services that would help MPs and their staff notice when they were being asked to vote on dumb or dubious things.
* We can’t really give a rounded view of how useful your MP is if we can’t see their involvement with the bill making process.
* We can’t do about 12 zillion other things that we’re not even bright enough to think of yet.

And here are the not-very-technical details. Here’s a jealous Australian. And here’s UK Tory leader David Cameron endorsing the idea:

: Later: More on the Guardian’s Free our Data campaign.

The United States of Google

I’ve been working on an essay for the upcoming Personal Democracy Forum — and also for my book, WWGD? — about the future of government online, and so I want to throw some of the ideas I’ve been playing with out to you for reaction, improvement, and argument, and I want to ask you about your notions of government in the internet age. I’ll start:

* Abolish the Freedom of Information Act. Turn it inside-out. Why should we be asking for information about and from our government? The government should have to ask to keep things from us. Government information — every act of government on our behalf — should be free by default. We must insist on an aggressive ethic of openness. The exceptions should be rare: the personal business of citizens, national security, ongoing criminal investigations and court cases (while they are ongoing), and little else.

In the past, the physical means of information simply did not allow for this; file cabinets filled with papers could not be open to every inspector all the time. But digital files can be. When all business is transacted digitally, it can be captured, stored, and opened to search and analysis. We must insist on it — and not just from the executive branch (as is the case with the current FOIA) but from all branches, and not just from the federal government but from all levels of government. Sunshine everywhere.

The entirety of government must be searchable.

Barack Obama has a start on this. Speaking at Google, he said:

I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made, and let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer.

* Government officials and agencies should blog. This ethic of openness should go beyond official documents and files. Openness should be part of the work habit of government officials and conversation with constituents should be an ethic of government. The open blog is merely a tool and a symbol for this — and a more efficient tool, I’ll add, than individual letters and phone calls. Hillary Clinton has said she wants agencies to blog.

I want to have a much more transparent government, and I think we now have the tools to make that happen. I said the other night at an event in New Hampshire, I want to have as much information about the way our government operates on the Internet so the people who pay for it, the taxpayers of America, can see that. I want to be sure that we actually have like agency blogs. I want people in all the government agencies to be communicating with people because for me, we’re now in an era — which didn’t exist before — where you can have instant access to information, and I want to see my government be more transparent. I want to make sure that we limit, if we can’t eliminate all the no-bid contracts, the cronyism, I want to cut 500,000 government contractors.

More from Clinton here:

I want to put everything on the Internet. I want you to see the budget of every agency. I want you to track everything that goes on in your government — you pay for it, you should know about it. . . . We should even have a government blogging team where people in the agencies are constantly telling all of you, the taxpayers, the citizens of America, everything that’s going on so that you have up-to-the-minute information about what your government is doing, so that you too can be informed, and hold the government accountable.

* Webcast government. The government should put C-SPAN out of business by videoing itself. Obama has said he wants to webcast agency meetings. I say the same should be the case for Congressional meetings and, yes, court sessions, including Supreme Court hearings. I’ve suggested that radio stations and newspapers should get citizens to record and podcast all their local government meetings.

All of government’s deliberations should be watchable. That doesn’t mean they’ll be watched, of course; this is sure to be the lowest rated video in the history of the camera. But that doesn’t matter. All it takes is for one Josh Marshall to get one of his readers to watch one hearing to catch that moment that’s newsworthy. And all the while, the government officials on the other side of the camera will know they are being watched.

Now one could argue that this will turn government into show biz, that politicians will preen for the camera as they have in big hearings and as judges have in televised trials. But the more everything is videoed, the less it becomes special. It becomes the eye of the people, always there: Big Brother, reversed.

* Start GovernmentStorm. If Dell and now Starbucks can do it, government should. These storms, powered by, enable customers to make suggestions and then to vote and comment on others’ suggestions. In general, good ideas attract votes and conversations and bad ideas die on the vine. One sees trends emerge in the discussion: Starbucks should see that its greatest problem with customers now is not the smell of its sandwiches but the length of its lines. One also sees an incredible generosity from customers; they will spend their time telling companies what they want to buy and how to improve — and only a foolish company would not listen. We’ll surely do the same for our government. Indeed, the more we feel an ownership of our government — the more we can have a role, the more responsive it is to our wishes, needs, and ideas — the better, right?

I think there is another important aspect to this idea: turning the conversation about government to the positive. Today, the default in our discussion of government is negative: that they are doing bad things badly and that we are the watchdogs who’ll catch them in the act. Now that is true in too many cases. And frustration with government is only amplified when we think we are shouting at a brick wall; that is what newspaper columnists — long shut off from the man on the street for whom they thought they were writing and now suddenly able to hear them — are beginning to learn.

But it is destructive to concentrate only on the negative; we have to shift to the constructive. We need to engage in a positive conversation about positive action. That, one hopes, is what Obama’s theme of hope is really about.

So if I were Mark Benioff at Salesforce, I’d offer his storms to any government agency at any level (for free, because it would be a generous gift back and it would also distribute the functionality as a standard of such conversation). And then the wise politician will open up, invite ideas, and hold conversations with constituents there (this won’t work if the politicians don’t engage in that conversation and don’t take action based on ideas there; then it’s just another brick wall). So if I were my governor, Jon Corzine, facing the need to make huge cuts in government — and only more cuts as the economy worsens — I’d ask citizens for theirs ideas. It wouldn’t be a magic bullet but maybe some ideas and themes (though not consensus) would emerge.

I am not in favor of turning to government-by-poll. There’s tyranny in that. As much of a populist as I am, I do believe in the representative, republican (small ‘r’) structure of our government with its filters, balances, and deliberative process. But I do think that given a chance to take help, citizens will. And technology can help them do that.

Let’s move from the gift economy to a gift government.

* Personal political pages. I believe the ethic of openness will spread across society. The press demands that government be transparent, then so must the press be — and this applies to individual journalists. Likewise, as citizens demand transparency, so will they become more transparent. Ethics work both in two directions.

We are already seeing more personal transparency in society. We see it in Facebook and blogs and other social media, where people — particularly young people — realize that they have to open up something of themselves to find others who share their interests and where identity is made up more and more of what we create and what we make public. Just like Flickr, we are starting to default to publicness. Privacy is often put forth as the issue online but, as Facebook has learned a few times now, the real issue is not privacy but control of our information.

So I propose personal political pages where we can, if we choose, reveal our stands, opinions, alliances, and allegiances and where we can — here I call on Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management project — manage our relationship with government, campaigns, and movements. Call it PRM, political relationship management.

Here’s how I see it working: I put online my personal statement: I am a centrist Democrat; I voted for Hillary Clinton and hope to get the chance to do so again; I want to actively support such movements as protecting the First Amendment against FCC censorship and insuring an open broadband policy in the country. On my page, I can explain and discuss any issues I choose. I already disclose many of those views here. But on my personal political page page, I also get to manage my relationship with politicians: I say which candidates and organizations and movements may approach me to ask for donations or to volunteer. I can also invite opponents of my views to try to convince me: send me a link to your best shot. I can also change my views and votes on the page.

Let’s imagine that there are millions and millions of our pages. They can be searched and analyzed to get a constant snapshot of the views of the people: Google as the polling place that never closes. This puts us in control of public opinion and takes it out of the hands of pollsters and to some extent pundits and even out of the hands of elections. It makes elections a constant process. Again, I don’t want to run government this way but I do want more input and this is just that.

The page also becomes a standard for disclosure. Politicians need to say where they stand. And I believe that journalists should, too.

It also becomes a platform for organizing citizens around shared needs and beliefs. That is what the internet is really all about — not content, not media, but connections among people. As Mark Zuckerberg said at Davos, as soon as Facebook was translated into Spanish, it was being used to organize against FARC in Colombia. See also the Tibetan Freedom Movement app. And note well that this creates an international polity, a new layer of political action from people that is more efficient than any U.N. or E.U. The internet dooms middlemen, and that includes bureaucrats.

I’m smelling a Personal Political Page Facebook app.

* The dawn of the human politician. Speaking of Facebook… It will not be long before we see a candidate for office having to admit some youthful foible because it was memorialized on Facebook. We had the president who lusted in his heart, the president who toked (but didn’t inhale), the president who came (same one), and we now have the presidential candidate who inhaled and snorted, and in New York, we have the governors who shtup. Apart from one of those governors, I have no problem with those sins because have nothing to do with the job of running the business of government. I argue that it is a mistake to think that politicians, of all people, are moral leaders or paragons of virtue; they are the last people we should put on pedestals (and this is one of the reasons I am wary of the Obama cult). So the transparency and openness that is coming to our lives on the internet means that we operate under mutually assured humiliation. I say that’s a good thing.

* People replace television. Joe Trippi, as much as anyone, hopes and believes that the power of the internet to help campaigns raise incredible amounts of money from incredible numbers of citizens — and to organize those citizens into movements, which is what the Obama campaign has done — is what will free our political system from big money. The revolution, he promises, will not be televised. Well, that’s not happening yet, witness the record spending this year and John McCain’s desperate efforts to run away from the act under his name. Television still matters, so big money still matters.

But let’s imagine that we’re in the future when television’s reach has shrunken to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore, that it’s no longer an efficient means of getting out a message to us, the masses. I think many in campaigns and media think — hope — that money will just shift online. But that won’t happen. Spending a lot of money to get to a lot of people just doesn’t work as well online as it does in broadcast.

No, the future of campaigning — just as the future of marketing — is people. It is advocates. If you want to win an election, you have to have the people who will go tell their friends who will tell their friends. The Obama campaign is, I believe, a preview of that political future.

* Rule by engineers. It will not be long, I believe, before we will have an engineer in the White House. President Schmidt. President Page. President Zuckerberg. President Gates, even. Or best yet, President Mayer. After all, engineers are now running more and more of industry — since the internet is our best industry — and thanks to their success, they are making their influence felt in charity. Government is surely next.

At Davos, I was struck by the different approach to solving problems I saw from Google’s founders. After hearing Al Gore trying to fix the environment through taxes and regulation, I heard the Google guys try to do the same through invention and investment in reducing the cost of power. Engineers don’t waste their time with cool ideas. They seek a problem and solve it. And they are spoiled that in their world of technology, unlike the messier world of people, most problems do have solutions. Still, I look forward to rule by engineers. I think it will be more rational, more logical, less flashy (unless it’s President Jobs we get). And because these are people of few words, we’ll see more results than rhetoric. We can only hope.

So how do you think government can, should, or will change in the internet age?

Taking flight — and fixing it

The other day, I wrote about how I’d like to see airplane flights become social economies as a way to improve and add value to the now-tortured experience. Of course, much of the hassle of flying is in the unfortunately necessary security gauntlet, and others are talking about how to improve that — including the security people running it.

Anthony Williams of Wikinomics points us to an article in FCW describing a successful effort to gather ideas and information from Transportation Security Administration employees through a closed wiki. Williams regrets that we passengers can’t join in and I think he’s right. There’s are obvious reasons why the TSA wiki is closed — namely, security and secrets — but they’d be wise to create a parallel wiki and forum where we, the passengers, could give our ideas and where the TSA people can try out theirs on us.

In the FCW article, Jennifer Dorn, CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, talks about “rebooting the public square” this way. In a speech, she tells about hearing of the TSA initiative from Kip Hawley, its assistant secretary:

After a great dinner and stimulating conversation, Hawley leaned over and, in a tone reminiscent of the famous scene in the movie “The Graduate,” said, “Jenna, I want to say one word to you. Just one word.”

“Yes?” I said.

“Are you listening?”

“Yes, I am,” I replied.

“Wiki.” . . .

TSA’s Idea Factory is a secure intranet, restricted to registered users inside the agency. It has become an instant hit. Airport TSOs now share ideas for improving their workplace environment and strategies for making the traveling public more secure. Within a week of its launch, TSA employees had submitted more than 150 ideas, offered more than 650 comments and voted on ideas more than 800 times.

Dorn realizes that this is about more than improving airport security. This is about improving government.

Today, we at the academy are convinced that collaborative technology has the potential to transform government in America, to tap into the expertise of people outside the hierarchy of any single agency or department, to make government more transparent, and to open the door to a broader array of experts focused on solving a particular problem or to citizens who want to contribute to making government work better. . . .

As a public administrator, I believe that the real power of collaborative technology extends far beyond the practical solutions that I’ve outlined. It is more than a new capability. It enables an entirely new way of thinking about the everyday management challenges of government. The real power of collaborative technology lies in its promise for bringing citizens back to the public square to re-engage them in the work of government and solving the problems of America and the world.

: Back to improving airlines and airports. Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is filled with ideas. Found via the Lufthansa discussion, where I’ve not been able to post my comment.

Failing infrastructure

John Podhoretz is right: The most fundamental job of government is to maintain our shared infrastructure. When that infrastructure fails us — when steam pipes explode, bridges collapse, and cities are paralyzed by nothing more than rain (as today in New York), government has failed us. Podhoretz wrote this before New York fell apart from minor flooding:

To maintain public safety, we have armies (to defend us from external threats), police forces (to protect us from criminals) and firefighters. That’s part of the reason we pay taxes to government in the first place.

The other part is to keep up publicly shared spaces and utilities – parks, streets, reservoirs, water tunnels, sewage tunnels and the like.

Government properly requires all citizens to share in defraying the cost of these expenses because it supplies them to everyone without question.

The social compact here is simple: We give the money to government, and all we ask in return is that these publicly shared responsibilities and resources are properly maintained.

Maintenance is necessary but boring, and since government is made up of human beings who abhor boredom, few elected officials or high-level managers are all that interested in this mundane task. Instead, they want to do big, exciting, bold new things – things they can claim for their own.

Now, not surprisingly, Podhoretz goes on to begin a two-paragraph treatise on the size and scope of government. We can debate that all day long. But no one should debate the fundamental job of government in maintaining our infrastructure — and the failure of that.

New York and New Jersey today were brought to a halt because of some rain. Yes, it was a lot of rain in a short time. But every damned time we get a lot of rain, the same damned things happen. And we just let them happen. Streets and subways flood. Why hasn’t government built drains? Why haven’t we insisted?

It took me four hours to get into New York City today — that was New Jersey’s fault — but when I got there, the subways were closed and the riders were kept uninformed and the transit system did nothing to help them (except abuse people who wanted to get onto buses). Government failed. It failed at the fallen bridge. It failed a few weeks earlier when a New York street exploded. It fails every day there is an air-traffic-control mess. It failed today.

We need to demand that government get to the boring job of government.