When I was getting my public education in Boise, Idaho, my very conservative 11th grade civics teacher had us write an essay on our single best idea on what we would do to improve the United States. After he'd finished grading the assignment, he read aloud some of them that he considered to have the most merit: banning abortion, strengthening the 2nd Amendment, re-instituting Prohibition, removing the separation of church and state. He then returned everyone's graded essays but mine. After class, I came up to his desk and asked what had happened to my essay. He looked me in the face and told me that I had never turned it in to him, and we both knew he was lying. I had written an essay arguing that the United States was too big to govern as one body and that it should be broken up into a half dozen smaller countries.
In the nearly twenty years since I wrote that essay I've become a civic-minded adult that understands our political system a lot better, but I still find myself occasionally thinking about that teenage idea. The heart of that idea was an assumption that a national representative couldn't be an effective avatar for their constituency, but I can't agree with that now: it would be hard to imagine Michele Bachmann and Earl Blumenauer as being interchangeable to their districts. Another argument was that it was too hard to communicate with the representative, that you couldn't make your voice heard, and that you had no idea of what it was that they were doing or working on. The local newspaper was pretty much the sole source of information about the activities of your representatives, and as such, a citizen was limited to the legislative activity that the newspaper chose to cover. Getting "in touch" with your representative meant telephoning their office, writing a letter, or sending a fax(!), and about the best that you could receive in return was a form letter that thanked you for your communication and vaguely touched on the issues you'd addressed. Somewhat strangely, as a teenager I only thought about all of this in relation to national and statewide politics rather than regional or local politics; I guess local policy wasn't as exciting to me back then.
When I wrote that essay, the Internet hadn't even received its first graphic browser (the World Wide Web had only been implemented a year before), and the idea of Web 2.0 was still almost a decade away. Our national representatives now have their own websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts (all of those links will take you to Representative Blumenauer's respective pages), and the number of people, companies, and organizations monitoring and reporting on the activities of those representatives are nearly endless. Constituents can use this same media to communicate with their elected officials or participate in online petitions, polls, and public lobbying groups.
Micro-Democracy, or A More Intimate and Accessible Government
I'm especially interested in how all of this applies on a local level, and the potential it offers for even greater citizen involvement and awareness in the government that serves them. For a lack of a better phrase, I've been referring to the idea of invoking the concepts and technology of Web 2.0 with the day-to-day workings of local government as "micro-democracy". This isn't a new idea, and is something that can already be seen in action. For example, Mayor Sam Adams uses both his Facebook and Twitter accounts to not only inform his constituents of actions he is involved in, but also to solicit ideas from the public. Surprisingly, his interactions are not simply one-sided: on Twitter, he actively re-posts relevant links by other users and engages directly with users. By being an active participant in social media, the Mayor effectively demonstrates that he is a part of the community, rather than an elected official above the community.
The end goal of micro-democracy (at least as I'm defining it, not how this guy's defining it) is to increase citizen access, awareness and involvement. Ideally, it shouldn't just be elected politicians that are involved in the process, but all extensions of government. The Portland Water Bureau has been one of the early adopters of this idea, having maintained their popular Water Blog for a few years (they've also got a Facebook page and a Twitter account). A few other local government agencies have Twitter accounts as well, such as the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Portland Office of Emergency Management. Where are the other agencies that might benefit from a more casual broadcasting of information? I'm thinking of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the Office of Transportation, or Portland Public Schools, for starters.
Potential for a Better Public Process
For a specific example of how this idea of Micro-Democracy could have been utilized in an actual setting, I'll use the Washington High Community Center project that Portland Parks and Recreation is working on. Portland Parks and Rec does have a Facebook page, but they don't appear to have used it for anything in the past year. (They may also have a Twitter account? I can't really tell). As the planning for Washington High got underway early this past summer, Parks and Rec mailed out 6,000 postcard mailers to residences, sent email invitations to neighborhood and business associations, and distributed 50 posters. Living within the 3-mile service area, I received a postcard, but it was the presence of a poster stapled to a telephone pole near my apartment that served to remind me of the public process, and specifically, the survey.
For the survey, Parks and Rec issued 940 physical surveys (600 of those went to parent-teacher associations), a targeted mailer was mailed to 1,739 Buckman residences, 2,165 door-to-door surveys were attempted, and 3500 inserts were sent out in the Sunnyside neighborhood associations newsletter. Of the physical surveys, 600 were returned, with 400 of those coming from the PTA surveys. The mailers, inserts, and door-to-door surveys yielded another 635 surveys, with only 37 of those coming from online responses (I was one of those 37 people). [Outreach Activity Summary, 6/09]. If the online survey was promoted via Facebook and Twitter, how much more online participation would we have seen? One of the powerful tools of Facebook and Twitter is that users can share posts and links with people in their own network. I would be much more likely to "re-tweet" a link to a Parks & Rec survey than I would to share the postcard I received with my friends and neighbors.
Looking at the demographics of those that responded to the survey, almost half of them reported having children, which makes sense given the number of surveys that were received from the PTAs. However, this is a disproportionate number of families with children; the percentage of households with children are as follows: Buckman, 4.8%; Kerns, 5.5%; Hosford-Abernethy, 12%; Brooklyn, 11.2%; Creston-Kenilworth, 13.3%; and Reed, 8.1%. Another area where the survey respondents were in a disproportionate percentage was in home-ownership. 67% of the respondents to the survey owned their homes, while home-ownership for the same neighborhoods is much lower; these are the percentages of home-owners in the respective neighborhoods: Buckman, 16%; Kerns, 19%; Sunnyside, 35%; Hosford-Abernethy, 51%; Brooklyn, 37%; Creston-Kenilworth, 38%, Reed, 36%. [All figures come from census information available of portlandmaps.com]
Of the roughly 117 people that filled out comment cards at the open house in late August, 44% had children in the household and 78% were homeowners. Would there have been a larger gathering of citizens if they were invited to the "event" on Facebook, or if Portland Parks and Rec had posted a reminder on Twitter? It makes sense that families with children and people that own their own homes responded in larger numbers, since they probably have a bigger stake in the community center built in the neighborhood (especially if they both have children and own a home in the neighborhood), but an opportunity was lost in not using available technology to generate a greater involvement of all members of the community.
A Publicly-Owned Twitter Doesn't Really Mean a Publicly-Owned Twitter
Twitter is a great resource for any organization that may want to disperse regular updates to a large group of users, but there is the problem of a perception by a certain segment of the public that is only used for trivial navel-gazing. I prefer to think of Twitter as an information resource, or as David Eaves points out, a newspaper (thank you for the suggestion, Molly Vogt!). This perception of Twitter as frivolous is probably a problem in encouraging greater government usage of the service. Another problem that concerns me more is that Twitter is a private enterprise.
Twitter is a platform of communication, like email, instant messages, or text messages, but it is also a brand name. Facebook, of course, is the same way. Both companies provide their APIs, though, so it is possible for third-party applications to post updates directly to Twitter and Facebook. This is where I've been thinking of a "publicly-owned Twitter": a platform that functions the same way as Twitter, that can automatically update Twitter and Facebook statuses, but is not Twitter. The utility in a publicly-operated version of Twitter is that it removes the government from the reliance on the company, and disassociates it from the brand.
For the sake of example, let's imagine that the city of Portland creates the PortlandUpdates.com website for this purpose. The city can market PortlandUpdates as a place where you can sign up to get mobile updates from all of Portland's departments, schools, and elected leaders online. Users elect only to follow the areas of government that they are interested in: maybe you don't care about updates from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, but you want to see the Department of Transportation's posts, and you want to get SMS updates from Sunnyside Elementary. That's fine, there you are. You want to follow all of City Hall, except for Randy Leonard, because you don't like Randy Leonard? Okay, no problem. There's probably even a free PortlandUpdates app that you can download for your iPhone or your Android. Cool.
The utility in having something like this is that it provides the opportunity to connect with someone who "hates Twitter", while still including them in the discussion. The end user of PortlandUpdates.com doesn't need to know that when Mayor Adams or the Water Bureau posts to PortlandUpdates that it is also posting to their respective Twitter or Facebook accounts. It's an approach that my parents would be more comfortable with.
Anyway. That's what I've got. An essay about bringing government closer together instead of splitting it apart. And Mr. Binder, if you're reading this, can I please have that essay back? It was pretty funny.