I've been thinking very hard about political technology, an area I've focused, worked, and consulted on quite a bit since 2004. Most recently, I was involved in some conceptual design work, during which time I talked with colleagues extensively about how we need a way to bring people closer to the legislative process, and vice versa - bring the process to them, so they can lay their hands on it. Most citizens, even those who paid attention in Civics class, don't understand how legislation is made, a complex process often referred to as a "sausage factory," something ugly, a process you don't really want to see, because knowing what goes into it would cause nightmares... and you would never want to eat sausage again.
That's an unfortunate analogy, because informed citizens must know how legislation is made, and we don't have the luxury of ignoring the results of that process - you have to eat that bit of sausage every day.
We often say that political technology can empower the grassroots by facilitating discussion and debate and by helping people organize, but what we really need is engine that allows a citizen to churn through legislation as it's developing and zero in on issues relevant to that citizen's concerns... and ways for groups of concerned citizens to form and respond. The legislation is public, and much of it is online, but it's not necessarily comprehensible to civilians.
Billhop.com is one system developed to create better access to legislation in process. It doesn't do quite everything I'd like to see – for instance, I think we need an AI engine for analyzing legislation, facilitating that zeroing in on issues I mentioned above, and it would be great to see a budget simulator on the site, models of which exist here and here. But not to quibble; this system has powerful features: the Texas version lists each bill with a description and talking points, shows related bills and related issues, and has tools for the user to rate the bill on a range from very conservative to very liberal and vote on the bill. This info is editable by users, who can add keywords that populate a tag cloud on the home page. You can comment on bills, and you can join groups with messaging, comments, and RSS feeds.
In an Austinist interview, the site's creator, Damien Brockmann, describes Billhop as "a website that combines wikipedia, MySpace and Craigslist in order to track legislation." That's close, though the site lacks the "friend of a friend" apparatus – explicit social networking – that is the core of Myspace. It also depends on users to add bills, whereas I would want to see a way to crawl published legislation and add it to the site, along with markup, and the analysis AI I mentioned. On the other hand, with the right people contributing to the site, and more and more of them, it could still become authoritative. The site can also make tracking legislation a kind of game, which would incentivize users to pay close attention to the lege.
Also cool: the site's fundamental approach encourages participation from multiple perspectives. Says Brockmann,
BillHop is a little different from most blogs though. Instead of cultivating one community with a common set of beliefs, BillHop has the possibility to cultivate multiple communities. It's a site where people with different advocacy issues and perspectives can share information side-by-side. People often only seek out information that they want to hear. I want BillHop to be a place where people seeking one piece of information will stumble across three additional pieces of info that may possibly alter their perspective or point of view.
To me the most hopeful sign that BillHop can succeed and spread is the founder's realistic view of political process.
To some extent there are some universal qualities there that apply to all politicians & politicos regardless of their country or culture. Politics is a often a sport of self-interest. People minimize their risks and will do what what it takes for them to stay afloat. Some do more, and I admire them for it, but most politicians have a very immediate, narrow focus. That's not always a bad thing.
The more educated and vocal people are, the more are leaders must respond to them. The hope for BH and other political communities is that it brings more informed people into that focus, and helps in the long run make our leaders and our democracy more responsive.
This really is very exciting. I am trying to create the Earth Intelligence Network (non-profit) to feed real world intelligence into serious games for change that also have access to the actual budget numbers in the appropriations bills, and I am making a case to Amazon that they can expand ScanBack (other price options) to include water, fuel, and child or sweatshop labor hours in the information they delivery to the ScanBack cell phone at point of sale. Eager to exchange more information on this.
A resident blogger in Virginia recently unveiled a website along the same lines at:
Hopefully this trend will continue.
I've been beta-testing http://www.opencongress.org/ this week and it seems to be something along the same lines as you're thinking. It look to me like it will be a really usable site once opens up to the public.