New Interfaces on Government

ChangeCamp pictured with two markers

On the first Saturday after Obama's inspirational inauguration, and just days before Canada's parliament reconvened to debate a controversial budget, 140 web geeks, designers, academics, government staff, local political players, consultants, and social innovators came together to "re- imagine government and citizenship in the age of participation".

This was ChangeCamp, the inaugural Canadian "unconference " on the question of how we interact with government. ChangeCamp was held in the MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto. The 8 hour day was packed with small, ad hoc, group discussions, as well as participant proposed sessions organized using guidelines from the "Open Space Technology" meeting methodology.

This event was recognized as a continued evolution of the BarCamp model. BarCamps had originally been organized to provide web developers with opportunities to share and collaborate on innovative technologies. The focus on technology prevalent at BarCamps was certainly on display at ChangeCamp. Wifi laptops abounded. Conversations were often punctuated with open source computing jargon. It was easy to find familiar faces and themes from related local conferences, such as Open Everything, Transit Camp, and Open Cities.

Across the sessions and discussions was excited talk, and example after example, of how government-at every level from local to national-was going to become more transparent and collaborative through the use of new technologies. A few simple but powerful examples I learned about were created by the U.K. programmers at MySociety.org. From both within government, and outside of government, MySociety have created tools that empower citizens to communicate with their elected representatives (WriteToThem.com), hear from members of parliament (HearFromYourMP.com), track what members say in parliament (TheyWorkForYou.com), access government information (WhatDoTheyKnow.com), and report local infrastructure problems, like broken street lights and pot holes (FixMyStreet.com). Their biggest success was being asked by Number 10 Downing street (the official residence of the British Prime Minister) to create a web site to facilitate online petitions. With over 8 million signatures from over 5 million unique email addresses, the online petition site shows that people are interested in making their opinions available to government outside the election cycle.

Similar North American projects also exist. HowdTheyVote.ca scrapes the records from Canada 's Hansard records from parliamentary debates. OpenSecrets.org gives insight into money's influence on U.S. elections and public policy. GovTrack.us tracks U.S. federal legislation and information on Members of Congress. VisibleGovernment.ca is promoting tools for transparency of Canadian government information. The SeeClickFix.com collaborative tool allows for reporting on local problems. But none of these have the official legitimacy of the above mentioned petitions.number10.gov.uk , which can now be considered a political player of sorts, frequently referenced in the media.

The most interesting initiative I learned about was from the Citizen's Briefing Book component of Barack Obama's change.gov campaign web site. There, 70,000 people posted and voted on tens of thousands of policy suggestions for the incoming President. The top 10 suggestions were:

  1. End marijuana prohibition (92,970 Points)
  2. Become the “greenest” country in the world (70,470 Points)
  3. Stop using federal resources to undermine states' medicinal marijuana laws (66,170 Points)
  4. End government sponsored abstinence education and provide age appropriate sex education (65350 Points)
  5. Fund bullet trains and light rail (65,100 Points)
  6. Permanently close all torture facilities (61,250 Points)
  7. Revoke tax cuts for the top 1% (57,080 Points)
  8. Get the insurance companies out the health care (55,080 Points)
  9. Revoke the tax exempt status of the Church of Scientology (52,470 Points)
  10. Bring back the Constitution! (50,160 Points)

These results are obviously more representative of the web savvy Obama supporters than the general U.S. population, but it is notable that some of these specific suggestions (e.g. supporting rail) are rarely discussed in the media and represt a fresh grass roots perspective that is lacking from the typical general opinion polling that is often designed in reaction to the mainstream news.

Similar to sites like Digg.com, services like UserVoice.com, and Google's new free Moderator application, Obama's high profile-and open ended-approach to gauging public opinion could set a new trend away from polling and towards crowdsourcing. We should keep our eyes open to see what initiatives the newly created Federal Office of Public Liaison may demonstrate further in this direction.

All this optimism must be put in a realistic perspective, since the "digital divide" still exists. The most prolific online users are not demographically representative of the general population. To get a better sense of the informed voice of the people, participants can be organized into a representative sample of the larger whole. Case studies of such approaches can be seen in the Ontario and BC Citizen's Assemblies and more recently in the Australian Citizens' Parliament. These multi-day, face-to-face, approaches may not have the Web 2.0 sparkle of twitter.com or FaceBook, but their informed and deliberative approach can provide wiser recommendations than most current online voting systems.

What's next? In Canada, look to organizations like Ascentum and MassLBP, who are breaking new ground in both online and offline democracy between elections-and watch what emerges from upcoming ChangeCamps in Ottawa and Vancouver.

Image: Matthew Burpee

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