February 25, 2024

Taking Advantage of Citizen Contrarians

In my last post, I argued that sifting through citizens’ questions for the President is a job best done outside of government. More broadly, there’s a class of input that is good for government to receive, but that probably won’t be welcome at the staff level, where moment-to-moment success is more of a concern than long-term institutional thriving. Tough questions from citizens are in this category. So is unexpected, challenging or contrarian citizen advice or policy input. A flood of messages that tell the President “I’m in favor of what you already plan to do,” perhaps leavened with a sprinkling of “I respectfully disagree, but still like you anyway,” would make for great PR, and better yet, since such messages don’t offer action guiding advice, they don’t actually drive any change whatsoever in what anyone in government—from the West Wing to the furthest corners of the executive branch—does.

Will the new administration set things up to run this way? I don’t know. Certainly, the cookie-cutter blandness of their responses to the first round of online citizen questions is not a promising sign. There’s no question that Obama himself sees some value in real, tough questions that come from the masses. But the immediate practical advantages of a choir that echoes the preacher may be a much more attractive prospect for his staff then the scrambling, search, and actual policy rethought that might have to follow tough questions or unexpected advice.

This outcome would be a lost opportunity precisely because there are pockets of untapped expertise, uncommon wisdom, and bright ideas out there. Surfacing these insights—the inputs that weren’t already going to be incorporated into the policy process, the thoughts that weren’t talking points during the campaign, the things we didn’t already know—is precisely what the new collaborative technologies have made possible.

On the other hand, in order for this to work, we need to be able to regard (at least some of) the surprising, unexpected or quirky citizen inputs as successes for the system that attracted them, rather than failures. We can already find out what the median voter thinks, without all these fancy new systems, and in any case, his or her opinion is unlikely to add new or unexpected value to the policy process.

Obamacto.org, a potential model for external sites that gather citizen input for government, has a leaderboard of suggested priorities for the new CTO, voted up by visitors to the site. The first three suggestions are net neutrality regulation, Patriot Act repeal and DMCA repeal—unsurprising major issues. Arguably, if enough people took part in the online voting, there would be some value in knowing how the online group had prioritized these familiar requests. But with the fourth item, things get interesting: it reads “complete the job on metrication that Ronald Reagan defunded.”

On the one hand, my first reaction to this is to laugh: Regardless of whether or not moving to the metric system would be a good idea, it’s something that doesn’t have nearly the political support today that would be needed in order for it to be a plausible priority for Obama’s CTO. Put another way, there’s no chance that persuading America to do this is the best use of the new administration’s political capital.

On the other hand, maybe that’s what these sorts of online fora are for: Changing which issues are on the table, and how we think about them. The netroots turned net neutrality into a mainstream political issue, and for all I know they (or some other constellation of political forces) could one day do the same for the drive to go metric.

Readers, commenters: What do you think? Are quirky inputs like the suggestion that Obama’s CTO focus on metrication a hopeful sign for the value new deliberative technologies can add in the political process? Or, are they a sign that we haven’t figured out how these technologies should work or how to use them?


  1. “emperor obama has no clothes!”

    Yes, of course, there’s no shortage of obvious things that are for some foolish reason “off the table” or “politically impossible”. if he had clothes, he’d immediately start metrifying, and immediately empty the prisons of 80%-black drug users, and immediately reschedule marijuana as a medicine according to the literal terms of the statute, and immediately appoint senior war crimes prosecutors to investigate the outgoing administration, and immediately open the US border to any Guantanamo prisoner who wants to attend an Ivy League school free of charge, or otherwise be quietly compensated well and live without harassment. And disband the suspicionless airport searches, the color-code warning system, the National ID demands via the Real back door, the secret blacklists you can’t get off, the secret laws, the monster databases tracking ordinary innocent people doing ordinary innocent things “just in case we want to look later”, and the surly and unaccountable DHS Gestapo in general. He’d stop wasting a billion dollars a year trying desparately to prove that illegal drugs are bad for you (NIDA), hundreds of millions on TV ads that convince kids to try drugs (ONDCP), and hundreds of billions losing a war in iraq. He could fund the whole recession stimulus just by actually ending the war, unlike the Democrats. He could stop mass NSA domestic wiretaps and mass gathering of call detail records. He could decouple funding for free education for all, from government-run schools (Milton & Rose Friedman’s last wish), which would probably double the amount of learning achieved by the next generation, particularly ghetto kids, and would raise teacher salaries (for competent teachers). He could take stop making both foreigners and Americans feel degraded, powerless and unwelcome at the border. He could stop building federal buildings full of bollards to protect government employees from harm while leaving the populace vulnerable, telling us we’re all in it together. He could declassify everything ever classified or otherwise hidden by the Bush Administration. He could tell us the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

    But that would all involve Change. And he has no clothes.

  2. I agree with previous posters that U.S. changeover to the metric system is not yet a popular subject in America, and despite the success of the obamacto.org metrication idea ranking at number 4, the Obama administration is probably not going to place metrication among its first priorities to tackle starting in a couple of weeks. However, these political realities do not reduce the pressing need for the U.S. to adopt officially the simple, decimal measurement system enjoyed by the rest of the world. The Obama Administration ought to address it sometime during its term of office–address it, and then, champion it. It cannot succeed without strong backing at the very top of executive government.

    The U.S. move to metric is not a new idea. In 1971, the Commerce Department recommended to Congress that the U.S. change over to metric in 10 years. We didn’t do it, but other countries that once used the traditional inch-pound-mile system did. Most notable among these is Australia, which is now an entirely metric society. I know; I visited that country in 2007, and ordered a 700-gram steak in a Sydney restaurant.

    We should not do something just because the rest of the world does it. For example, we should not lower our public health standards just because many other countries’ standards are lower than ours. But, in the case of metrication, the rest of the world is giving us a good idea, an idea that makes sense, not only for this generation, but for ALL future generations of Americans, who ought to be able to measure things with the same decimal ease they enjoy while adding up their decimal dollars and cents, and to communicate worldwide with greater commercial and social ease.


    Paul Trusten, R.Ph.
    Public Relations Director
    U.S. Metric Association, Inc.
    3609 Caldera Blvd. Apt. 122
    Midland TX 79707-2872 US

  3. It’s a hopeful sign, provided that it portends many more such notions surfacing and more public participation: the benefit will be in having a larger number of voices heard. I think that’s a reasonable hope. The internet has changed public discourse, for the better I think, and I am optimistic this will have some positive effect on the federal government.

    We contrarians are a cranky lot, though, and I daresay we oppose turning surface into a transitive verb. 😉

  4. The wisdom of the crowd is often completely wrong when it comes to politics for a number of reasons. The first is that (much to my dismay) many simply do not care about politics and the second is that the public is repeatedly and systematically mislead by the government/mass media. See the amount of American citizens that still believe that Iraq was connected to the 9/11 attacks, for instance. Additionally, many are willing to parrot whatever inane nonsense their pastor/lipstick-wearing VP candidate/other authority figure spews ad infinitum.

    Contrarians, who insist on thinking independently and critically, expose all of this lazy thought. You would do well to listen to them.

  5. “Put another way, there’s no chance that persuading America to do this is the best use of the new administration’s political capital.”

    It really saddens me when I hear statements like this that vaguely hint that progress is not possible because of some kind of mythical political obstacle. How, might I ask, would a bill moving the country to a metric system ever not pass if it had the support of the Democratic leadership? As a member of the ‘Left’, I believe that we should take this chance (Democrat as president and as majority in both house and senate) to pound though as many progressive bills as possible. The public rejected the ideas of the past 8 years and has given the Democrats a new political mandate. The wise thing for us to do is use it, not sacrifice our agenda because ‘it’s not politically expedient’ or ‘it would undermine bipartisanship’ or the like. The Republicans, as the last 8 years have shown, certainly would not give us the same courtesy.

  6. reminds me of Tony Blair…

  7. We, in effect, have this forum in place already in our representatives that we vote for. They are supposed to be there speaking for us and taking up issues we feel are most urgent. That people feel disenfranchised is more the lack of enthusiasm to participate the political processes on the part of the populace than anything else. Anything else except perhaps the populace’s own ignorance of the political process as I think many of the suggestions on obamacto.org reveals. (Though with the government continually cutting education funding I’m not sure how that will ever change.)

    There’s also the problem that such a forum caters to a likely small and non-representative demographic. It’s easy to forget that not everyone in this country has internet access let alone the wherewithal to find and use the site if they did. I’m fairly sure the poor and elderly could care less about the metric system, at least in comparison to some real issues like having a job or having food.