This post is part of "CDT Fellows Focus," a series that presents the views of notable experts on tech policy issues. This week, CDT Fellow Susan Crawford is our guest contributor. Posts featured in "CDT Fellows Focus" don't necessarily reflect the views of CDT; the goal of the series is to present diverse, well-informed views on significant tech policy issues.
CDT spends most of its time on the governance of technology. But it's midsummer and Congress is exhausted by the deficit hoopla. So let's change the menu and take a look at the technology of governance.
The whole point of democratic governance is that it's based on the input of regular people. But over centuries, many of the bureaucracies we have built to provide procedural frameworks for that input have actually become impediments; that's the price we've paid for modern government, in a sense.
It's becoming very clear these days that technology can be used to improve the process of soliciting public participation and the "customer relationship" job of governing. In particular, Facebook and Twitter use is becoming foundational for government actors, and new policy leaders need to be up to speed (and aware that these platforms can be used for ill as well as for good). Used well, these platforms can empower new developments in governance. Amidst all the excitement, there's room for cynicism: It's not yet clear whether policy outputs in America will be any less affected by concerted pressure coming from well-organized, well-funded, and well-connected industry groups, even if there's a Facebook/Twitter angle to the engagement.
Two recent stories demonstrate the fascinating role of Facebook/Twitter in shaping governance.
Iceland was hit hard by the banking crisis of 2008, when its banks collapsed within a week, and its citizens called for a full-on review of the country's constitution. (The original constitution, adopted in 1944 when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark, was basically copied from the Danish version.) After some wrangling and delay, a 25-member constitutional council was elected. The ordinary citizens that make up the council have worked very quickly and earnestly since they were convened in April. Using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, they met in public, gathered 16,000 comments, and went through sixteen drafts in four months. Two-thirds of Iceland's 320,000 people are on Facebook, which made for a very lively Facebook page.
This past weekend, the council delivered a draft constitution for consideration by the people of Iceland. Here's the site explaining how this all came about in English. Here's the draft constitution. The Icelandic parliament will have the final say as to adoption, but the people will vote on it first. Notice how much there is in the draft (awkwardly translated by Google Translate) about access to information: "Information and data in the possession of the government shall be available without exception and [there] should be a law ensuring public access to all documents that public bodies collect or cover. List[s] of all matters and documents held by government, their origin and content, must be publicly accessible."
It's a crowdsourced draft constitution, pulled together in short order with the collaboration of ordinary citizens. The Facebook page is full of congratulations from people all over the world.
A second story from this past weekend in The New York Times focused on New York City's Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne. Sterne is using a multitude of private platforms to "reinvent how the city engages with its citizens," according to The Times.
New York City is the gold standard in the US along these lines; the city spent $54 million to consolidate 40 separate call-centers and 14 pages of contact telephone numbers into one location and phone number so that citizens would have a single point of contact for all government information and non-emergency complaints. The resulting 311 system is roundly praised, and is available via phone, Skype, Twitter, iPhone app, and text. (San Francisco, not to be outdone, allows citizens to attach photos of graffiti, potholes, garbage, etc. to their 311 tweets; the photos go directly to the Public Works Department and are associated with a tracking number that the requestor can follow to ensure that the work is done.) This past weekend, New York City hosted a civic hackathon to get developers contributing ideas to make NYC.gov better. With bagels, working space, and a good Internet connection, people will show up to help.
We don't know whether the Icelandic parliament will actually adopt the new suggested crowdsourced constitution; we don't know whether Rachel Sterne will actually succeed in reinventing the dazzlingly-complex bureaucracy of New York City. The heavy reliance on private platforms can be troubling for some; why should Facebook and Twitter be so central to governance? And won't five guys at the top make all the decisions in the end anyway?
But, as Sterne told The Times, you "have to be logical in leveraging tools that the audience that we’re trying to reach is using." From a customer-relationship point of view, both of these efforts are wholly impressive. Thousands of Icelandic citizens feel heard; hundreds of thousands of NYC citizens feel better about the responsiveness of their government (although snow removal is still a difficult subject). The developers are full of helpful ideas. Government should be about people, and these efforts are improving the citizen-government interface.