The Money got Their Attention

The Dean campaign captured the world’s imagination because it raised so much money so quickly from so many people. We pay attention to money because it indicates that people are willing to back up their sentiments with more than words. It’s a crude measure of social worth, but it’s the metric that seems to matter the most to most of us.

When millions of dollars are anted up by a self-organizing, grassroots movement, it even gets the attention of the big money guys, since their organizations work so hard for the money, and suddenly an unknown is making it look easy. As Jim Moore stressed so long ago, the few hundred million dollars driving a Presidential campaign is chump change compared to the trillions of dollars of budgetary power it so cynically buys. And the beat goes on over at johnkerry.com, where the fundraising pace is making believers of the old boys, at about $50K per hour.

A Social SourceFourge with Money

Ethan Zuckerman and I spoke today about the Open Republic (OR) concept, noting how similar it is to his concept called Social SourceForge. Coincidentally, I’ve often described OR as a political SourceForge, with money to spend on good ideas. I’m beginning to see this space as tools for governance and how to use them, and here too, money can be the secret sauce. This is precisely Ethan’s vision and we want to be pushing this inevitability together, so it happens in 2004 rather than 2 or 4 years later.

The best expression of the [working-titled] Open Republic would be a charitable foundation with a broad purpose:

Upgrade American governance by stimulating the creation and adoption of excellent campaign and governance software and Internet resources.

Despite that grand vision, the operation of OR should be a based on a down-to-earth, practical charter:

  1. Identify and praise the currently available resources
  2. Specify improvements and extensions to those resources:
    1. Software
    2. Documentation and users’ guides
    3. A web site that guides users in deploying the resources
  3. Make cash grants for improvements to those resources

The Electoral Cycle: the Krebs Cycle of Democracy

If we’re so idealistic, why the focus on political tools rather than governance, which is what we really need to emphasize? About a month ago, it occurred to me that the individual campaign is where the action is:

Where we go seems to be to develop a set of tools even better than the Dean team put together and release these 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.

Mini-Summit 2.0

Last July, I hosted a little mini-summit here on East 43rd Street, where Zephyr Teachout and Zack Rosen met and we exercised our collective image-a-nation. Ethan suggested I do it again, but this time apply it to our shared vision of how the openRepublic concept might work. (I had no idea what prompted his suggestion. Only after we spoke did I come across Doc’s Vision aerie post about his visits to our pad where we mostly laugh at the passing scene but occasionally do serious work, like figuring out how to extend our WiFi service from the window of my study to Tudor City Park.)

If we’re going to have a vision, there’s no sense wasting time on a small one. I’ll get into the mid and long term visions later, but politics is the most demanding fast-cycle environment you can imagine, and this is the year for enabling upstart politicians. So let’s imagine our near-term ideal client and what her needs might be.


Misty Smith Goes to Washington

the problem Imagine you’re Misty Smith’s brother-in-law. Misty’s a popular and effective mayor of a mid-size midwestern city who’s being encouraged to run for congress against an entrenched incumbent. the problem is that Misty’s party has atrophied over the incumbent’s eight terms in office. You’re a well-connected attorney and Misty’s asked you to look into a congressional race for her and make a recommendation. It’s an assignment you wish would go away, but Misty’s as persuasive as you are loyal. Where do you start?

some hope With a little research, you discover that there’s a non-partisan, apolitical openRepublic Foundation that hosts a comprehensive and comprehensible guide to the online organizing of campaigns. Further, you learn that this foundation has an expert advisory board that keeps its recommendations fresh and actually pays people to maintain a rich online guide to the various offerings. You’re surprised to learn that most of the tools are free to use at will. It seems too good to be true.

revolution 2.0 You’re a lawyer, so you’re convinced that anything that’s too good to be true, is. But you dig into the details and discover that some people actually believe that free and effective activist software is the key to the next phase of the great American experiment in democracy. They believe that, even as printing presses and post roads enabled the first American revolution, so might Internet communications leverage the power of people to combine their ideals so that their millions of voices and small contributions aggregate into a force that drowns out the obsolescing grip of broadcast politics on the voting public.

campaign in a box What’s interesting about the effort is that most of the online tools, whether developed by volunteers or contracted for, are free for you to download and use. They configure themselves into a suite of resources that some of the contributing programmers call CIAB–Cam
paign In A Box. This suite of tools sets up a web log so Misty and her close supporters can reach out to find new supporters for Misty, attract their contributions (& account for them), discover their most strongly felt opinions and send her to Washington using her unique unfair competitive advantage over her aloof opponent–Listening. You also discover that some of the recommended resources cost money, but they’re also described in the openRepublic Foundation’s catalogue. You appreciate this because you know that commercial software is often worth paying for, since it’s the product of a focused effort designed to satisfy paying clients.

money for nothing You have no understanding of open source software, since this is your first exposure to this strange concept, but you discover that these projects attract thousands of contributors around the world, seeing every bug and every chance for improvement.

You’re floored to discover that most web sites, and even the Tivo in your den, are based on software developed for free by people who care more about their contributions to the common wealth than about their day jobs. You know that traditional capitalism says that this is impossible but it gives you a slim hope that the Pilgrims might have been right and that maybe the commons is not doomed to be a tragedy. This insight is reinforced by your discovery that Yahoo! and Google have leveraged free software into prodigious market capitalizations.

In the case of the openRepublic Foundation, you learn that their blue ribbon advisory panel is backed up by two other panels of working volunteers coordinated by a small staff.

free upgrades The first of these is the Innovations Board. They take a hard look at the current resources and describe projects that seem obvious: tools that need improvement and new tools to fill in the gaps that become obvious when you look at any set of separate tools that serve an end-to-end function, just as a word processor depends on a separate dictionary and printer driver. The openRepublic Foundation requests proposals for extending the suite of tools and even accepts grant applications from developers proposing solutions that the implementation board hasn’t thought of.

quality control The other advisory panel is the Acceptance Group. They look at the tools built for the foundation and accept or reject them as fast as humanly possible. This is the core of the foundation’s growth initiative, because it includes the hard work of improving the user experience of neophytes like yourself.

renaissance of hope After this cascade of revelations, you feel feel like a 16-year-old with a new driver’s license. Is it possible that someone as clearly unqualified as Misty – 8 years of experience revitalizing her city, beloved by her constituents, articulate, educated and wise – could actually have a chance against her clearly superior opponent who has mastered pork barrel programs, influence and wealth for a decade and a half? You hardly dare to hope but you see there is a way.

The User Experience

You’re a lawyer, not a geek, so you’ve never heard of “the user experience” but you’ve suffered more of them than you wanted. You learn that the openRepublic Foundation is designed around you and Misty because every campaign, whether for an issue or a candidate, is driven by people with an incomplete set of skills and experience. The openRepublic Foundation is wrapping their innovations in a package that lets you understand what to do and when, with the least possible confusion and angst.

You also learn that the foundation is focused on another user experience, which is the one where Misty’s client–a voter–visits the campaign web site and discovers a chance to be heard, to learn, to meet like-minded others and to grow the hope that there may be a way to deliver at least one congressional district from the desiccate cynicism of politics as usual.

You’re up ’til 3:30 discovering what’s almost automatic that had never before been imagined. You go to bed energized by what’s possible rather than depressed by what’s inevitable. You even remember why you went to law school, so many disillusionments ago.

You can’t wait to accept Misty’s invitation to run her campaign.

8:12:55 AM    

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