An Essay by J. Paul Duplantis
In a representative democracy (and a federal republic for the U.S.) we vote for elected
officials to represent our interests through the policies they put forth but is our influence not stifled when we build more of a relationship with the legislator over that of the legislation drafted? It seems to reason a representative government would be better served when the represented are more aware of what is being codified than what is only being promised. And wouldn’t the representative be better served when they are better able to tune in to feedback from their constituency as it directly relates to what is being written rather than from random comment threads, emails, or through the coaxing of a talking head from a media outlet?
At the outset, it seems like the vast majority of the electorate would never bother with the sausage making of governing but what if a personal connection was made between the legislation and the constituent? Would the represented be more inclined to share their voice if they were notified of a passage in a piece of legislation impacting their commute to work, an increase in their local taxes, or a new provision to increase access to community services?
Would the electorate dig deeper if they were able to clearly see the breadcrumbs of influence between committee members, lobbyists, committee member benefactors, and contractors involved with topics within the pending legislation? Would they be encouraged to engage more when their feedback is voted up based on the relevance and resourcefulness of their interactions or cited as a contributor to the passage in the legislation when enacted? Could these tools ultimately provide valuable feedback to the legislators and provide a unique perspective to the electorate on the intricacies of the legislative process to decrease the dissonance between the representative and the represented?
What is possible when the electorate emerges from the sidelines of government into a true representational force? Would they be less tolerant of keeping those in office who act in legislating different than the way in which they speak? This may seem like an impossible task in a gridlocked government with an information overloaded electorate but the technology already exists to provide context to legislation and tools are coming online to annotate and enable collaboration on existing pages. Where enterprises such as the Sunlight Foundation, GovTrack.us, OpenSecrets.org, and Web.Hypothes.is could begin to break down the barriers of closed governance and top-down innovation to encourage people to become more participant than adherent.
We have to ask ourselves, would the government be a better representation of the people when people are more involved with what is written than only what is said? Yes, people en masse are not specialists in any given topic but the same goes for our legislators who rely on the voice of industry professionals and lobbyists to help inform what is drafted which can carry an agenda outside the interests of the public? But what about tapping into the specialties, vocations, and interests of the public to align their experiences and perspective with what is drafted to help move the public from a passive voice to an active resource?
A government with an ear on the tracks of public discourse could be a powerful force when thoughtful and productive interactions surface between the representative and the represented. Imagine the possibilities when a high school student engages with a legislator around a specific detail on a piece of legislation their recent studies illuminated. Or to hear from a scientist’s findings on a draft item bypassing traditional means of legislative discovery. Where insightful comments and profiles could be bookmarked to passages of working legislation for consideration as it makes its way through the congressional record.
What is possible when elected officials and the electorate are more finely tuned around what is drafted to regulate, authorize, outlaw, fund, sanction, grant, declare, or restrict? It is believed here a more representative form of government will emerge to help express the will of the people more effectively. How could this happen? Through the eventual mass adoption of technologies to fold public discourse into civic understanding to build a stronger bridge between the governing and the governed. A future only possible when the tools are funded and able to demonstrate to investors and the public not only how often but how effectively the tools are used to the benefit of both the legislators and the public.
The purpose of this article is to engage influencers in both technology and government around ideas to help build a future more representative of the people. Using technology to attach and filter public comments to legislation through a layer of context is not a panacea for perfect governance but it could be a means to help keep our unalienable rights in check. If you feel this is important, please feel free to share comments, ideas, or resources here to help incorporate these ideas into the reality of governing.