June 13, 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?