Realizing Democracy through Technology

September 16, 2009

Government is often thought of as having closed doors, being insensitive, inflexible, unbending, secretive, and controlling.  In short, the public doesn’t think highly of government.  And, it’s not just because the public has high expectations.  The public should have high expectations of the government of the greatest nation in the world. 

Yet, government is simply made up of people.  Our government administrators and our elected officials are our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Sometimes, something transforms these people with good intentions within the halls of bureaucracy.  Maybe it’s the tradition of facing negative public opinion.  Maybe it’s the stress of trying to please everyone.  Maybe government really is made up of self-serving, power-hungry, deaf-to-the-public, bureaucrats.  I don’t think that’s the case. 

Not every person can attend public hearings, speeches, debates, and other government events.  Many government events are held between 8 AM and 5 PM, Monday through Friday, which immediately excludes many people with regular, full-time jobs.

Luckily, technology and some dedicated, honest, citizen-oriented administrators are charging towards opportunities for informing and collaborating with the public.

Online technology, notably social media, enhances and expands the opportunities people have to share their opinions and participate in government decision-making.

Colorado Senate President Brandon Shaffer, for example, is using an online survey to supplement his personal visits around Colorado to invite suggestions from people about how to improve life in the state.  He’s also reaching out to people via Twitter and Facebook.  His follower and fan counts aren’t extensive, but these online efforts have a lot of potential to complement in-person events.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office involved the public in an informal comment period regarding changes to administrative rules.  Subject-matter experts who participated in past collaborative efforts were directly invited, and the public-at-large was welcomed to participate in commenting on proposed rules as well as making direct changes to the proposed rules using a Google Group site.  Government agencies are required to conduct open public comment periods prior to holding hearings to pass administrative rules, but this informal effort brought the public into direct communication with employees in the Secretary of State’s Office and gave people the opportunity to write the rules that will affect their transactions with the office.

To support citizens’ sharing their opinions and experiences with health care, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter launched a website to help citizens send letters to the editors of newspapers.  The site allows people to enter a zip code and retrieve the contact information for nearby newspapers.  People can then write their message and send it directly to the editors.  There are even pre-written points that people can add to their own messages or use to help get their thoughts flowing.

The Colorado legislature has been broadcasting its sessions since January 2008 on the Colorado Channel and online streaming video.  Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff helped pioneer this effort to share the actions of state lawmakers with people who can’t come down to the Capitol to watch.

Current Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll is successfully using Facebook to both share political updates and to foster personal relationships. 

These are just a few examples of Colorado public officials using social media to further connect with people.  Several federal government agencies are also conducting social media efforts to share data and more easily obtain citizen feedback.  The TSA blog is one of the most successful examples.

While there are many admirable citizen engagement efforts being undertaken, there are still some efforts that are coming up short.  For example, Gov. Ritter issued a press release seeking comments to rules regarding roadless lands, a controversial issue here in the West.  However, the press release did not provide any information about how to submit comments.  That makes for a seemingly empty request for citizen input.  To be fair, however, Gov. Ritter is making several other efforts to promote communication with citizens and transparency in state government, such as with the Transparency Online Project.

Government, however, encounters several obstacles to successfully undertaking collaborative efforts.  Resources for developing and monitoring communication tools are often limited and specifications in terms of service and other regulations sometimes prevent the use of free tools. 

“But,” as former EPA CIO Molly O’Neill said, “technology is the easy part – creating truly collaborative services is much harder and brings big changes. True government collaboration means being open and transparent with data, assumptions, debates, and decisions.”

On top of the physical constraints, people’s perspective of government sometimes prevents them from participating.  Through years of tightly-held decision-making, some citizens have become disillusioned and have come to anticipate a lack of recognition from government- along the lines of “your comments will be disregarded in the order they were received.”  People may be reluctant to participate because they think it’s a waste of their time.  Then, there’s the old-guard that’s standing behind the closed doors. 

Through consistent, sincere efforts government is overcoming these obstacles.  The public needs to see that their comments and suggestions are being seriously considered.  The doors of the old-guard can be broken down with the dedication of thoughtful employees.

Public officials and administrators and the public are responsible for using these opportunities to establish better policies and programs and to push our government to truly support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Government needs to provide the tools that are available and share information.  People need to share their voices and expertise.  And, government needs to listen.

Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed democracy will act responsibly.”  About 200 years later we may be realizing that vision.