Are we stuck? Structurally stuck? Sometimes I feel that we are. Our democratic processes feel like they are stuck and not evolving.
We have evolved in the past. We changed the way senators were chosen. We removed structural barriers to voting based on gender, race and age. Now I wonder how we evolve in an age when information and communication tools potentially provide new options.
I wonder about senators. Does a compromise that was made several hundred years ago fit the reality of today’s world? How do we justify two senators in states like Rhode Island, Delaware and Wyoming, or others with smaller populations, when a large state like California also only has two senators? For that matter, do state boundaries themselves reflect the realities of how people live and work today?
I have a very difficult time imagining the process that would change either of those two conditions. It is hard to imagine the amount of sustained energy, perseverance and determination, let alone what interests could be brought together to cause it to happen, that could facilitate such change.
We want government to be stable and predictable. An unstable government is not a pretty thing, as we can see from headlines around the world. We created bureaucracy because it helps create stability and continuity across elections. Yet, when does that stability become hardening of the arteries?
Perhaps the more important question is how do we make sure our democracy keeps evolving so that we can avoid the violent transitions when governments cling to the past and do not evolve?
Two words that float in a growing word cloud of change vocabulary might give some hints about seeds of evolution – “engagement” and “collaboration”. The Internet has allowed us to move from silent consumers of information to engaged contributors. I do not believe it has done as well in giving us tools for collaboration, or, at least, they are not used as broadly as they might be.
I am more familiar with local government because I spent several years as chief administrative officer of a city, so let me suggest a local scenario that might nurture those two seeds.
A prominent, and well tested, model for orchestrating change at the local level is the blue ribbon panel. This is a group of local citizens who are willing and interested in helping their community and represent different constituencies in the area. Typically these groups are limited in size to the number of people a large conference room can accommodate. I participated in many of these groups.
I began to make several observations about the limits of this method. First, it does not fit the growing engagement model because a relatively small group of people make the decisions and then look to get “buy-in” from the rest of the community. Buy-in is a selling process not an engagement one. Also, as the problems got more complex the blue ribbon panel lacked the depth and breath to address the issues. And, often the members of the multiple panels that existed at any one time, addressing different community issues, overlapped because their jobs allow them the flexibility to participate in meetings during the normal business day.
Today’s online tools provide the possibility of greatly expanding the number of people who can be involved, and have engagement in the process, while still maintaining a sense of order. Let me briefly suggest a scenario just to illustrate how such a process might work.
The area where I live, like many areas in the country, is de-industrializing its river. The river connects three small cities in the region and also flows through some suburban municipalities. The question of how to plan for development of the river in the future is one that crosses many municipal boundaries, and reasonably should have coordination among these different governmental units.
Suppose instead of a blue ribbon panel we had a much larger group of interested and knowledgeable community members each of whom could make a small contribution of their time and knowledge. We might have people from universities who have charted the river or who do survey research. We could have different interests from each municipality represented. We could have engineers and hydrologists. Suppose instead of 30 or 40 people, we had 500 or 600 people involved and engaged.
We could potentially create the plan for future use of the river in greater detail by tapping the expertise within this broad group. We might use a tool like a wiki as a place for collaborative writing of the group’s report. At the end, we would also have a large group of people who have invested their time and energy in the project and who can collaborate to help move the recommendations through the political process.
Could such an approach work in your community? Could you personally be more involved in such a process if it provided the flexibility of online involvement and contribution?