The Elephant in the Corner…

…of this election cycle is the Internet. Suppose for a moment that we’re able to get past our sturm und drang that says that the fascist NeoCons are going to sell our republic out to the Republicans and that the pinko commie fag liberals will sell our democracy to the Democrats. What would our government look like if it were as customer-centric as Amazon?

I’ve been discussing the idea of e-democracy today with Doc Searls and Phil Windley who are having dinner in Las Vegas on the topic as I write this. (I told Phil I wish I could be a fly in his soup). Our collective assessment is that no one is thinking about e-democracy on a large enough scale.

Everybody wants smaller government except the government. Everybody wants government to have a better User Interface. Everybody wants the government to be as user-friendly as Amazon. Everybody wants transparency everywhere in government: voting auditability, legislation, cloak room deal-cutting, pork, contracting, etc. And we all want the cost of government to drop like ISP pricing.

And no one wants politicians getting in the way of governance any more. At some level, we know this is possible and inevitable. But should we have to wait a couple of decades for our overdue upgrade?

Phil observes an interesting latency factor built in to government: governments resist all management principles for 20 years after they’ve been widely accepted in private enterprise. He says that if you announce in a company that 20% of the people are going to be let go, everyone assumes that it will be someone else, thanks to their high opinion of their value to the enterprise. Apparently, though, if you make that announcement in government, everyone assumes they’ll be part of the 20%. He’s describing a culture founded on a sense of fraudulence.

I’ll bet that most of us have a similar vision of e-government. Once you describe government as a web app, the rest is mostly details. All fifteen of us could sit down and sketch it out on a couple of flip chart sheets. But to implement it, we need to cajole the bureaucrats out of their bureaus.

Phil and I are willing to stipulate a couple of points:

  1. Many, maybe most of government employees could be replaced by a well-designed web app.
  2. The big cost of government is not the payroll, but the programs that bureaucrats dream up to justify their job/program/department.
  3. If only the bureaucrats would cooperate, an IT SWAT Team could design that web app in #1.

Here’s the secret to breaking the civil service log jam: Establish a program under which a cooperative civil servant can qualify for reasonable merit raises and retirement on the pension they’re aiming at, if they’ll just go home and stop causing trouble. First they need to cooperate with the SWAT Team to manage the paperwork they currently handle. If they can demonstrate that they really don’t do anything, they get a bonus, since it saves everyone so much trouble.

You say Republican and I say Democrat

With a proper UI and scalability, does anyone care what servers are behind the scenes at Amazon? Isn’t it the same with e-government? If the systems run properly, the party in power doesn’t matter as much. Citizens should be discussing the fine points of services and decision-making rather than Dem vs. GOP. It’s a granularity issue: the finer the grain, the more useful the design discussions.

When the citizenry is significantly involved in rating programs (think of epinions or Amazon reviews), defensive wars like Afghanistan are more likely and preemptive wars like Iraq, perhaps less. I really don’t care, as long as we all share a sense of what’s right and willing to commit wholeheartedly to, since that’s the benchmark for an effective program, whether it’s military action or AmeriCorps. I hope it’s obvious that fine-grained citizen involvement is the opposite of the citizen initiatives so popular in California. Those are not fine-grained, but rather the bumper-sticker school of governance.

Along the way, we’d discover that all of us reasoning together are a lot smarter than some of us. My sense is that smarter-than-average people of both ends of the spectrum are scared to death of a broad-based democracy.

The Internet mustn’t be simply a way to win elections but a basis for governance.

If Estonia can do this stuff, surely we can.

12:24:26 AM    

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