The Revolution Will be Engineered

There’s a lot of buzz around the core players in the Dean campaign about where we go from here. This has some of the elements of any campaign dealing with its disappointment. However, the Dean threads are as active as ever, with 7,413 comments on the blog so far on Wednesday.

If nothing else, the Dean campaign has given every campaign the hope that the right mix of web services and online dialogue can open voter’s hearts and wallets.

Where we go seems to be to develop a set of tools even better than the Dean team put together and release thgese tools into the public domain for the benefit of every campaign from PTA President to US President. Although my vision is for tools that improve the character of governance, campaigns are the place to start, and only partly because that’s where the money is. The electoral cycle is to governance as the Krebs cycle is to biology: it’s the fuel that makes democracy work.

Political campaigns engage zealots who try to motivate partial zealots to vote a certain way. (Relative to the general disregard for politics and voting, one must be a partial zealot to vote and a real zealot to be a campaign activist.)

The required zealotry is a clue to the poor user experience of American politics. The people who know how to “do” politics today don’t see what’s wrong with the current system, in the same way that Unix geeks don’t see why more people can’t learn to live with a command line interface.

My many months of work with the Dean campaign convince me that our cynical and closed political system depends on its miserable user experience for its sway over our lives. There are probably other ways to improve politics, like better civics classes, public television, parents’ interest groups, responsible party leadership. But I and the people I know are limited to improving the user experience for people who might be better citizens, if they were just given the tools.

The Users we’re Designing For

There are many potential users for the Net-based tools I’m thinking of:

  • Voters
  • Politicians
  • Election Officials
  • Political Action Committees and 527 Organizations
  • Citizens

That’s a much broader set of users than we’ve been thinking of in this area. In fact, the Dean Campaign and its Johnny-come-lately imitators were thinking only of a fraction of the voters, thosequalified and inclined to vote in a Democratic primary. So let’s start with the voters, which is the only thing the campaigns care about.

The Voter

While the customer for these open source tools is any campaign that wants to do things even better than the Dean campaign, their user is the potential voter and campaign donor-activist.The crucial design challenge is the user experience of a voter coming upon a candidate’s web site and discovering that there is a place for each voter’s voice in this campaign. The thing the campaigns have to do better is to solicit each voter’s input on the issues, not just to promote the horse race between two stylized candidates.

This is an inversion of the Dean model, where people could only discuss issues among themselves at Meetups and in blog comments, for there was no explicit means for voters to express their policy preferences in a way that could be aggregated as a coherent direction for the campaign. I always maintained that this is what the people wanted most from the campaign, and their admirable efforts would have been amplified if the issues had not been on the back burner.

The aggregation of explicit voter preferences is the secret sauce of open source politics. The politicians who embrace specific and authentic input from their constituents will be the ones to gain and hold office. It is the only counterweight to the ideologues who trash constituent messages they don’t want to hear.

It will be up to campaigns and their consultants to connote the sense that there’s something worth paying attention to on their site. Next time, I’ll suggest a grassroots-way to expand a core constituency.

11:38:03 PM    

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