During a session at the Personal Democracy Forum 2009 conference, Simon Rosenberg of NDN vented frustration with the Obama administration’s “obsession with speed” in changing policy, versus taking the time to get it right. Yet a recurring theme over the two day conference is that the administration, as well as politicans and businesses, might not have the luxury of time: people, empowered and augmented by social media tools, are already way ahead of these organizations in how they expect to be engaged.
The Personal Democracy Forum 2009 conference is a truly amazing opportunity to listen to and interact with amazing people from both technology and politics. In just two days we saw:
- Vivek Kundra, White House CIO, presenting a breathtaking dashboard of the federal government’s tech spending at http://it.usaspending.gov, just the first step in “democratizing data” by providing access to the raw data in multiple machine readable formats. Putting in American’s hands the mind-blowing ability to review each project, where it is versus budget, links to GAO and other agency reviews, and the ability to drill down to the CIO in charge of the project or the contractor performing a subset of the project. This beta site and structure is a dazzling roadmap on how to get the rest of the government’s 10,000 systems moving forward to provide transparent data, the ability for input into how to do things better and unprecedented accountability
- Mayor Michael Bloomberg over Skype announcing a similar opening of raw data at the city level, as well as move 311 to Twitter (@311nyc – “it’s always been customer service, not just a phone service.”)
- Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO for the White House showing how they are openly soliciting input from the public in policy making, coming up with more ideas than a three-person team in the White House could ever do by themselves. Watch the process unfold this summer (from brainstorming of 1000 ideas, to 16 core topics that required more discussion, to actual drafting of language and revisions) at http://www.whitehouse.gov/open/
- Joe Trippi, David Weinberger and Britt Blaser talking about Facebook Application ivote4u as the itunes for politics – “you organize and manage your music collection, why not your politicians” providing you access to your politicians voting records, letting you mark your votes on legislation and compare. There are a lot of other aggregator sites in the marketplace, but the difference with ivote4u is having users verified as constituents, which will help lawmakers to hone in on the core voices amongst all the noise out there, and potentially understand how those constituents feel about legislation before the vote
All in all, an amazing shift in government, providing transparency and the groundwork to allow people to participate more fully in their governance. The question remains as to how to get people to interact and to provide quality feedback, but these organizations are experimenting with different tools to make that happen. Hopefully we can give government the room to fail, learn and optimize the process even further.
Power to the (Network of) People
But democratizing data is just one part of a broader over-arching theme: we are currently undergoing a major shift in power, from hierarchical organizations to adhocracies, networks. Alec Ross noted that just as the invention of the printing press shifted power from the church, we are seeing networks aided by the internet and social media tools begin to shift power around the globe. David Weinberger noted the old credentialing system was based on the limitations of paper – printing books was expensive – and the world has evolved from “facts” in an encyclopedia to a more real-world view about the discussions, arguments and different points of view around those facts, via the hyperlink. The power is in the network to extract knowledge and wisdom from the discussion around the facts. And that shift in power was reiterated in a number of examples:
- Where diplomacy has always been “two white guys in white shirts and red ties” meeting government to government, Ross noted the 21st Century diplomacy is government to people (Obama speeches like the one in Cairo being translated into farsi and other languages and shared virally) and people to people (groups organizing via Facebook like Colombians against FARC and Iranians after the election)
- Patientslikeme.com is allowing patients to track their experience with diseases like ALS, marking close to 200 different metrics so that users can share what treatments worked, what symptoms were showing up, and providing a kind of meta data about diseases heretofore not available, as the hierarchy of doctors haven’t been able to share that depth of data. What was once only the doctors’ domain could become the people’s domain.
- Newsrooms of old guard newspapers continue to try to hold on to the power, as Dan Froomkin, former Washington Post blogger noted that their tremendous ferver to not take sides in the newsroom, to reach an impartial center is like a “self-inflicted lobotomy.” Instead of “calling it like it is,” the corporations hold back the front-line reporters, trying to maintain circulation by not offending anyone. As Froomkin noted, in a world of blogs, “not offending people is not a business model” that is going to work long-term.
Mark Pesce noted that this shift in power is like sand paper, slowly reducing the power of different hierarchies and it is going to be a struggle for hierarchies to fight adhocracies because the organizational structures are so incredibly different. Pesce pointed to the fight by the Church of Scientology versus Wikipedia, where Wikipedia has banned updates by the Church. There is no one person in charge of Wikipedia, it is a social contract, an adhocracy, a network. Watching how the hierarchical organizations engage the adhocracies is going to be a telling sign of the bumps ahead in this transition of power, as we all work towards “getting it right.”