Hacking Democracy

Two US presidential campaigns made a big stir by using the Internet as a two-way medium. The innovators got clobbered by Big Television this time, but the software is open source and ready for the next round.
Consider the Source

Joe Trippi's long career path included a tour of duty with Progeny, working with Ian Murdock, the co-originator of Debian. It's not coincidental that Joe called Dean's an “open-source campaign” and said “It's like Linux. The more people collaborate, the more likely we'll build a better thing.”

Phil Windley, former CIO of Utah, says we're coming to the end of an era in which governance is crippled by two waves of opposing ideologies and ideologues: anti-business lefties in the '60s and '70s and anti-government righties in the '80s and '90s. “Both groups failed to understand that most citizens don't subscribe to an ideology. In fact, all most people really want from government is to get the roads fixed.” What's exciting now, he says, is the potential for involvement and participation by ordinary citizens in the mundane machinery of governance. Already, he says, countless NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are bringing solutions to government rather than waiting for the reverse to happen.

I had a chance to witness this first-hand when a friend asked me to sit in on a meeting between a local group and county supervisors. The local group had some ideas for improving bandwidth in the county, and this meeting was the one where they were presenting concrete recommendations. To my surprise, I found myself participating in a productive conversation with elected officials about an important local issue—a new experience for me.

The friend who invited me to the meeting doesn't work in government, but he is an astute observer of government and how it works. What he told me after the meeting blew my mind, because it had never occurred to me before, was:

Government isn't the problem. People need to bring solutions to government. Government is dying for answers. Bring some and you'll get somewhere.

I don't have experience with the government stonewalling me at all. I experience interest and cooperation at every level, as long as I bring solutions and not just problems.

A lot of helpless people want government to solve their problems or to carry their spear on one issue or another. That reflects an ignorance of how the whole ecosystem actually works. If you're constructive, you can participate in that ecosystem. Bureaucrats are crying for help on all kinds of issues. If we provide some, we can make stuff get done together.

“Democracy is the first open-source application”, Phil Windley says. More to the point, he considers open-source values such as code exposure, peer review, individual initiative and iterated inclusion of improved code in goods that are never quite finished essential to functional democracy in the long run. In fact, he believes open-source values and practices will help democracy finally deliver on ideals that have remained unfulfilled for thousands of years.

In other words, we may finally have the kind of democracy we've always idealized—governments not only representative of their citizens but open to participation by everybody with something to contribute.

Three interesting facts about that meeting with the county supervisors:

  1. All the guests in the meeting were technologists. (I was the least technical of the bunch.)

  2. All the public servants in the meeting (supervisors and various staffers) believed that improving Internet bandwidth was a no-brainer issue.

  3. It was only natural for government to look to technologists for help.

Here at the local and regional levels of government, where the density of lobbyists and other pressure groups is lower than in Washington, pro-Internet technologists are starting to find themselves in a sellers' market for their expertise and solutions. At the very least, we're seeing some interfaces open up. Maybe we'll see quite a few more soon. According to Zephyr Teachout, over a hundred candidates now running for public office were inspired by the Dean campaign. “All the significant trends start with technologists”, Marc Andreessen says.

Those trends don't have to be technical. Clearly, they also can be political.

Perhaps now we won't get merely the government we deserve. Maybe now we'll get the government we hack.

Read more from Internet democracy innovators in “Voices from the New Hackers of Democracy” on the Linux Journal Web site: www.linuxjournal.com/article/7474.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal