It’s Time for a “Participatory” Democracy Instead of our “Consumer” One

This article was originally published September 16, 2017 at Education Update

Democracy in the United States was established nearly 250 years ago when news traveled at the speed of a horse and real-time collaboration required sharing a physical location. Today, ubiquitous internet access, smartphones, social media, and online collaboration tools have transformed how we work, play and consume, but the basic structure of our politics remains the same.

The result is that during an era of massive innovation, our static politics have disempowered the public and made our representative democracy feel more like a “consumer” one. Parties are brands; politicians are products; and our job as consumer-citizens is to purchase “our” politician with our votes. U.S. media and education systems strengthen the notion of “consumer democracy” by obsessing over the theatrics that motivate people to vote instead of educating people about the issues, policies and processes that impact all our lives. The public is not pleased. Congress and the President’s approval ratings are at record lows, as are voter participation rates.

How can democracies use technologies to strengthen themselves? Answers are emerging around the world, with the central theme being that technology can make politics more engaging, successful and legitimate by enabling people to become active producers of political outcomes instead of passive consumers. 

Two examples of “participatory democracy” are taking place in Taiwan and Madrid. In Taiwan, the “vTaiwan” project encourages the public to participate in a multi-month, multi-phase “consultation process” where citizens give issue-specific feedback offline and online. They use that feedback to create their own legislative and administrative proposals, and the most popular proposal are ratified and implemented by the government. Over the last three years, tens of thousands of people have participated, resulting in more than a dozen new laws and administrative actions. In Madrid, city government built a platform that enables citizens to debate issues and propose legislation. If that legislation meets a popularity threshold, it automatically becomes law.

Surprisingly, there are few if any truly participatory political projects in the United States. While New York City has “participatory budgeting,” its many restrictions and limited scope makes it fundamentally different than the open-ended participatory processes practiced overseas.

New York City’s Public Advocate is supposed to be the voice of all New Yorkers. As such, it’s the perfect position to bring a technology-enabled collective decision-making process to our City. Since it’s democratically elected, the Public Advocate can give “participatory democracy” real legitimacy. And since it has consultative status with the City Council and many city agencies, the Public Advocate can bring the public’s will directly to the people who run our city.

I’m running for Public Advocate to put “participatory democracy” on the ballot in November. With your help, we can put the Public exactly where it should be — directly in charge of the Public Advocate.

 

Devin Balkind works at the intersection of the nonprofit sector, the open-source movement, and grassroots community organizing to share and initiate best practices. He currently serves as president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces open source information management system for disaster relief and humanitarian aid. He is running for NYC 2017 Public Advocate.

This article was originally published September 16, 2017 at Education Update

Devin Balkind runs for 2017 NYC Public Advocate

Contact: kate@votedevin.com, 917.284.8423

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Meet “The Politician in Your Pocket” at VoteDevin.com

 

September 14, NYC.   “I’m running as a politician you can reach with your smartphone — a ‘facilitator’ rather than a ‘representative’ to give New Yorkers a voice and new ways to participate, reach consensus, and get what they need.”  With leadership and expertise in using technology to bring communities together, Devin Balkind is running for New York City Public Advocate in 2017 in order to:

  1. Put the public in charge of the Public Advocate’s office;
  2. Deliver results, not rhetoric; and
  3. Hold government accountable the “open source” way.

A cornerstone of his candidacy is to have the City use smartphone and web applications that bring New Yorkers together to decide what the priorities of the Public Advocate should be and provide solutions accordingly. Devin’s approach looks similar to how technology startups and open source communities get things done rather than traditional political campaigns.

1. Put the Public in Charge of the Public Advocate’s Office
Devin says: “While we can’t get everyone to agree on political issues and parties, we can bring people together around better processes for building consensus about what should be done and for holding public officials accountable for delivering real results.” Devin wants to “put process before politics” by using facilitation techniques and software technologies that enable the public to identify and prioritize issues they want the Public Advocate to address as well the actions they want the office to perform.  He is committed to following the public’s lead instead of the lead of advisers, political consultants and local power brokers.

“The future of politics is about meaningful and engrossing engagement that turns the public’s interests into actions and their actions into real results. If we don’t make political participation entertaining then politics will be dominated by entertainers with no real aptitude for the job and that can lead to grim results.”

2. Deliver Results, Not Rhetoric

Technology makes it possible for a small office like the Public Advocate to have an enormous impact on the entire city. “The city releases a vast amount of data into the public domain, and, now, thanks to sophisticated yet accessible software, we can turn that into information the public can use to accomplish a variety of things, including: identifying waste, fraud and abuse; evaluating the success of projects and programs; and so much more.” Instead of talking about these opportunities, Devin’s campaign is already seizing them by producing web applications. One example is his “Capital Project Budget Database” that allows the public to quickly browse and easily comment on nearly ten thousand capital projects that have received budget commitments from NYC government. “Our project database empowers New Yorkers to be watchdogs, analysts and investigators.” People are invited to browse this database at projects.votedevin.com and add comments and questions to the various projects.

By leveraging existing open data resources and open source software applications, Devin can do a lot with a little, improving services while reducing costs. “Telling agencies about good technology solutions isn’t enough. We’ll show working demonstrations so New Yorkers can decide the value of civic technologies for themselves.”

3. Holding Government Accountable the Open Source Way

The open source movement is the unsung hero of the last two decades of technology development. Not only has it produced the internet, but also a myriad of websites and applications like Wikipedia, WordPress and Linux. Every cool new “app” uses a ton of open source components, and these apps are transforming everything from dating to transportation systems. One thing open source hasn’t transformed yet is politics — but we’re changing that.

Our campaign is using tools and techniques developed by the open source movement to hold the government accountable for its actions and make its operations faster, better and cheaper. We’re guided by a vision of turning politics from an act of “consumption,” where citizens purchase candidates every four years with their voters, into an act of “participation,” where citizens are constantly engaged, generating feedback, ideas, proposals and solutions. Devin believes that the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents, which are holdovers from the days of New York City’s Board of Estimate, are the perfect vehicles for instituting new participatory processes. Devin says, “Let’s create the Board of Estimate 2.0 where every New Yorker has the type of information and decision-making opportunities that the original Board of Estimate had.”

Devin continues, “We need to abandon the idea that voting every two to four years is enough to get the government we deserve. We need to elect politicians that commit to opening up the government and letting us in, so that we, the people, can participate in our own governance.”

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:  See votedevin.com/media for more information and images; follow Devin on Twitter @devinbalkind and Facebook.com/votedevin

CONTACT: kate@votedevin.com, 917.284.8423
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Image by tableatny