Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How to make a public servant

Politicians have outlived their usefulness. In a way, they became victims of their own success. The process of getting elected forces them to spend a great deal of their time focused on raising enough money to either get or keep their jobs. It also compromises their ability to remain objective and impartial.

I don't blame the politicians as much as I do the electorate we never even had. When our nation was founded, and only white landowning males voted, that tiny electorate more or less understood the issues facing their leadership, and were thus more competent to evaluate the candidates. Banking relied on trust and personal integrity, not credit scores. That select group of people knew and depended on many others, making it likely they'd know candidates personally or have a close associate who did. And even they were hard pressed to do much better than we can today.

Extremely few people are even capable of having much of an appreciation of what our government is and does today. Let alone what it should be doing, or which candidate is more likely to be effective. Our elections reflect this fact and are nothing more than marketing campaigns funded by the very people we don't want to have anything to do with our leadership--wealthy special interests. We can never have any real confidence in how any freshman will behave. And all we know about the rest is that everyone else they do business with pays them a lot more than we do as their employers.

I think we can simultaneously both fix the electorate (render it genuinely effective at identifying representative candidates) and make it possible for honest very ordinary people to successfully run for high office without having to raise any money. And we can do all of that without any changes to our present government. All we need is a means to make our political capital more tangible. We're much better at getting the most for our money than we are at spending our vote. (Murphy's Law guarantees that if we're capable of doing something wisely, and our stupidity doesn't kill us first, then we'll eventually find it by process of elimination. So we have that going for us.)

I don't know where it will happen, or exactly how, but I do see a most likely scenario that follows as a natural consequence of the present state of our world. I think it will begin in a small city, from an attempt save money by replacing their existing information systems with internet based services that do a far better job for less. These services, having been created by speculative developers competing to most empower city management, will be designed to harvest the insight of that community's electorate because that feature is likely to be regarded as useful to purchasers of such software and very cheap to provide by developers, (but wasn't even remotely justifiable prior to the internet, at any cost. The Open Government directive changes this by creating the funds that motivate the developers.)

Primary schools are likely to take advantage of this new opportunity to teach civics, and more children will become aware of the power of their parents' political capital, and the opportunities that exist to deploy it. Likewise, noteworthy members of the community with hopes of becoming council members, or simply a whole lot to say to their leadership, will become prominent in discussions of the issues at the city's web site. In that sort of environment it won't be long before a developer invents a virtual currency to represent our vote, and provides an interface like a shopping mall, where you browse through the issues facing your city council, and spend your political capital on the issues you care about. Everyone would get the same income, but it would evaporate rapidly from your account (just like real political capital you don't use does) which encourages you to spend it continuously or lose it. Kids will thus get the both the knowledge and the means to make their parents more civic minded.

In such an environment anyone with genuinely good ideas and insight about their community and its problems would quickly become visible and receive the encouragement and endorsements they need to run for office without needing to compromise their integrity by selling access to themselves for campaign donations. The campaigns themselves would most likely be more about reviewing their performance as evangelists over the period between elections rather than about their character, experience, or agenda. It becomes a way to vet our political leadership by watching them lobby us to spend our political capital as they suggest. By showing people that by not participating their political capital evaporates into the accounts of those who do, they will be more motivated to participate.

The software would most likely evolve to better incorporate the role of political evangelist. It might involve giving up your political capital to buy a seat in a virtual city council at the site. They might be graded on how closely their recommendations reflect the way the community actually spent it's political capital, with the lowest scores periodically being kicked back into being voters and freeing up those slots for others. In this way the virtual council would end up filled with those most effective at educating and involving the public in civic affairs. As the real city council watches this process it would be made more aware of the zeitgeist and exposed to every good idea to come out of their electorate.

I see this process as inevitable. Especially because of what's going on in our own government these days. Right now the folks who actually staff our government are busy trying to implement the letter and spirit of Obama's Open Government initiative. That's what someone like me can join govloop to participate. The TV news doesn't talk about this stuff. It's the most publicly empowering modification of governance in the history of mankind--far more than simply getting a vote, this is enfranchisement in true spirit--where a child's wisdom can touch the mind of The President in only the time it takes to traverse the machinery we're creating to recognize it.

I guess the reason that I'm so sure this is going to happen is because I can imagine the alternative our government must be aware of: that such a site might evolve outside of and completely independently of government. If that happened they'd face a meta-government with more genuine political power, and most likely composed of more people than their own population. And that's why our own government is looking for ways to engage and involve us. And why can be certain that we'll find out how to make a public servant.

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