Hoping for Citizen 2.0

I like the sound of Government 2.0: Collaborate with citizens online and you can change government from a sewer-dwelling raccoon into a purring housecat.

Social media lets us try for a kind of politics that was impossible until now. I hope for great results. For many, Government 2.0, or “collaborative government,” will mean just “friending” a local cop. But in full flower, Government 2.0 can mean far better service, and far more government-and-citizen collaboration than ever before.

Even before we had social media, the glare of public attention was a proven antidote for bad politics. Citizens getting up their elbows in policymaking has always been another strong medicine.

Trouble is, that “sewer-dwelling raccoon” is always smarter than people think. When he’s hungry, he purrs like a housecat and covers stinky laws with high-minded names. Advertising fools just enough voters — so often complacent and impatient — to throw a new law onto the books. On and on it goes.

Such a stinky new law is just what Californians got in 2000. Proposition 34 was sold to voters as campaign finance reform. It was a ruse. (A few days ago, a report confirmed suspicions, and a major drafter of the proposition insisted he was “outraged.” Yeah, and round up the usual suspects.)

One other fix, more honest, came 100 years ago: California amended its constitution to give citizens the ballot proposition. It was the only way for voters to bypass the paralyzed Legislature and loosen the Southern Pacific Railroad’s grip. It worked. But more recently, ballot propositions have helped tie the state’s budget in knots.

In the long run, who knows how social media, visual analysis, and other tools may be used in government? What will matter most of all is who uses them. If it’s “the people,” which people?

I hope this new, pervasive politics mobilizes a new wave of smart activists — the way desktop publishing and, later, weblogs enabled editors and writers. Or the way tools like Tableau and Lyza are enabling independent-minded, creative analysts today.

As these activists learn about politics, I also hope that more citizens than ever before step up to watch, push, and verify. Such a voter would be Citizen 2.0, the real hope.

Otherwise, it’s going to be that raccoon again — this time on Twitter.

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