Digital Governance

On September 22, the White House unveiled We the People on WhiteHouse.gov via a blog post with the intention of giving everyday Americans the opportunity “to create and sign petitions on a range of issues affecting our nation.” This announcement was bolstered with an informative video to raise general awareness while demonstrating the necessary steps for participation.

While the White House has pledged to respond to any petition that receives 25,000 signatures in the first 30 days (up from the initial threshold of only 5,000 signatures), the value of such a petition is certainly debatable. Does this outlet offer a real opportunity for change, or merely fragment activists from more concentrated, publicly visible activities such as door-to-door campaigns and statehouse rallies? What is certain is that technology will continue to change the landscape of governance at a rapid pace.

The idea of allowing democracy to be played out via the Internet is not a new idea; interestingly, the U.K.launched a strikingly similar online petition initiative in August. And just prior to that, social media is widely credited as a key factor leading to the Arab Spring. In fact, most technology historians trace the birth of the Internet back to a network developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars, so it comes as no surprise that this technology would come back to re-shape the political landscape that brought it to life.

Might this be the birth of a new form of democracy? Could we be voting from our personal computers in the near future? And further on down the road as the technological barriers are overcome, might we be voting more often on increasingly more mundane issues currently left to our elected representatives, replacing our representative democracy with direct democracy?    

Perhaps, but certainly not anytime soon. President Obama’s own “Twitter Town Hall” and YouTube Q&A were drowned out with fringe concerns the President opted to ignore. While it may seem the whole world is online, major segments of our population — especially the elderly – have been slow to embrace this technology and therefore the online community is still a subset of our national population as a whole. And, perhaps, we may just be too fragmented with too many incompatible ideals for such a system to work. These fragmented voices from all sides of the political spectrum tend to cancel each other out, as Alexander Fraser Tytler famously wrote many years ago, “the will of the many is in truth a mere chimera, and ultimately resolves into the will of one.”

So where does that leave us? If recent polls are any indication, Americans are feeling historically disenchanted with our elected officials. Although digital governance has failed in recent experiments, it may have an impact on our lives yet. Digital governance is very much in its infancy, and the passage of time will surely sort out the problems just as many companies have managed to turn a profit online despite the dot com bust a decade ago. The way to get there is to take advantage of the mini-democracies all around us by experimenting on a smaller scale: homeowners’ associations, PTAs, and wherever else we congregate to shape our communities.    

Use these opportunities to boldly experiment in ways we’re not yet comfortable doing on a national level. Ask for greater accessibility to voting through online means, share information online that people can use when deciding their vote, and use social media to stay informed of the good ideas emerging from other communities. Good ideas will emerge, good ideas will rise to the top, and together we can forge a better tomorrow by focusing on our local communities. That is democracy in action in the digital age.

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