Government By The People

Modern technology has empowered us in many ways.

With a computer or smart phone I can (among other things) keep in touch with friends, share photos, check the weather, compare prices on just about anything, find out which products or vendors are good or bad, contribute to websites like Wikipedia, create and give or sell items, and express my thoughts on a blog.

Smart businesses have recognized this trend and tapped into it. Amazon.com lets you comment on any product they sell and even get a commission when you refer people to their site. eBay lets you set up your own virtual store. TV news and sportscasts create polls to gauge your opinion and offer opportunities to show off your photo of the latest news or weather event. Apple invites you to share playlists of your favorite tunes for their iTunes store. Everyone seems interested in what you want and what you think, and looks for ways to put you in the driver’s seat.

Everyone, that is, except for politicians.

When it comes to our government, politicians all too often seem more interested in doing what they want to do, in spite of what we voters think. And what politicians seem most interested in doing is catering to the wealthy and powerful who will reciprocate by helping them stay in office.

This is starting to piss people off.

We heard a lot in the last election about how angry Americans have become these days. The Tea Party got a lot of press about their anti-Democratic Party focus, but the anger really goes deeper.  Frank Rich recently suggested that the cause of Americans’ anger today is:

“…the realization that both parties are bought off by special interests who game the system and stack it against the rest of us.”

This is true. But I think that anger and frustration is deepened further by the context of our times. When many other parts of our personal lives have become more responsive to our thoughts and needs, why does our government still seem so unresponsive? And how can we make government as responsive as a successful online store like Amazon.com?

This isn’t just a matter of Washington politics and big issues like bailing out Wall Street or health care reform. It also applies to minor local things like getting a pot hole fixed. If I have problems with an order on Amazon.com, I can usually get it fixed in short order. Why does it take government so much longer?

There are a number of reasons for this, including a lack of imagination and accountability by many of the people in charge and a lack of resources to create new technology-based systems that would increase efficiency. Sadly, another key reason is that the current system actually IS responsive to those who really matter: the politicians and their financial masters. If the head of Goldman-Sachs is bothered by a pothole on his street, what do you think the odds are that it’ll get fixed in a hurry? For the rich and powerful, what’s the problem?

In spite of all this, we actually are seeing some tentative signs of technology being used to make government more responsive to the average citizen, including:

  • SeeClickFix offers citizens a way to notify their local government about an issue of concern (often something like a pothole). If you have an iPhone, there’s even an app for that;
  • Give a Minute offers Chicago residents the chance to tell the Powers That Be what would encourage them to walk, bike, or take public transportation more often; and
  • The US Initiative invites ideas for how we live together in cities.

While it’s promising to come across such initiatives, reviewing their websites has left me with doubts.

When I checked SeeClickFix for my neighborhood, I found a rather ragtag group of 9 items that citizens felt needed attention – some of which were reported 10 months ago and were still open. While some were general and less likely to be fully resolved (e.g., speeding cars on a heavily traveled road), some were seemingly simple items like potholes or sidewalk hazards. In addition, only two items were listed as “Fixed,” and those solutions were reported by other members of the public. I saw nothing that indicated our local government actually looked at and responded to the issues reported. So much for government responsiveness…

Meanwhile, the other two items listed above are projects supported by CEOs for Cities, an organization that appears to be focused on making cities more responsive to their residents.  According to its website, CEOs for Cities was created in 2001 and:

“CEOs for Cities is a civic lab of today’s urban leaders catalyzing a movement to advance the next generation of great American cities. CEOs for Cities works with its network partners to develop great cities that excel in the areas most critical to urban success: talent, connections, innovation and distinctiveness.”

I don’t know about you, but my eyes glazed over just reading that paragraph. The rest of the CEOs for Cities website reads the same way: lots of $10 words strung together in an academic way that is almost guaranteed to put you to sleep. Meanwhile, the Give a Minute and US Initiative websites seemed very spritely graphics-wise, but they weren’t very user-friendly. The Give a Minute site seemed particularly hard to navigate. Maybe that’s why neither site seemed to be overflowing with citizen input.

So how do we make governments as responsive as Amazon.com? Well…

  • Local governments could start using things like SeeClickFix and actually fixing (or at least responding to) the items their citizens report. Establishing a good track record would benefit both the local governments and their citizens.
  • The people behind CEOs for Cities and its projects could read “Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” to learn how to make their points without sounding like a bunch of ivory tower eggheads. Being clear about what they’re doing and making citizens care about it might get more people involved.
  • As for the rest of us? We should start demanding that government get with the program and become part of the 21st century. With today’s technology, we expect free access to information and the opportunity to use it to improve our lives and our worlds. And we’ll become angry with those who try to restrict and control both the information and us.

It’s time we revived the principle of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. To the barricades!…er, keyboards!!!

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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