American national government can more effectively serve the public by systematically opening its activities via social media. Politicians, bureaucrats and interest groups increasingly use social media--but primarily as a means of maintaining their current privileges. Instead, social media and its norms should be comprehensively imported into the federal government with the explicit goal of increasing citizen engagement and returning power to the people. The approach could be a new "Bill of Rights," via legislation and/or a citizen-based initiative to outline principles for social media, such as a presumption of transparency in all government activities. The resulting 21st-century leadership, management and communication practices will give new life to the vision of America's 18th-century founders.
The enduring, endemic, foundational problem in contemporary American politics is not simply toxic partisanship in Washington. The fundamental issues are leadership philosophy and management practice: Should government serve itself or serve the citizenry?
In our time of radical transparency and innovation in other sectors, the work of government remains a conspicuous outlier. The recent enactment of federal health insurance reform, and now its implementation, provides a case in point. The legislation was drafted with little citizen input, in a “behind closed doors” bargaining process of politicians, bureaucrats and interest group representatives. The redesign of a massive sector of the American economy was passed by the U.S. House and Senate outside of customary committee review, much less public debate and deliberation. Many—likely most—members offer no pretense of having read much less evaluated the entirety of this consequential legislation.
Accountability was the first casualty as the new health care regime was midwifed.
Implementation, beginning in the federal regulatory process, has been regrettably reliant on the participation of political insiders, additionally shrouded within the heretofore undisclosed, unprecedented, byzantine complexity of the new statute. Politically connected organizations have sought and received exemptions from the law—including many organizations that publicly supported its passage. Even the exemption process is opaque.
It would be wrong to view these dysfunctions solely as a partisan matter. It is notable that proposals to repeal and replace the new health insurance legislation have also been conceived and drafted in Washington, in reliance on politicians and interest group representatives.
Not surprisingly, public opinion polls have indicated disaffection from the legislation and the political process that birthed it. At the same historical moment that individuals are extraordinarily empowered as consumers, our power as citizens is conspicuously diminished.
Mancur Olson, in his classic work, The Rise and Decline of Nations, identified the accretion of “distributional coalitions” of government and special interests as a mortal threat to ongoing national vitality. Social media, effectively utilized, holds the promise of citizens reclaiming our rightful authority and power, displacing such self-serving intermediaries.
The ethos of social media is rooted in accountability, transparency, engagement and trust – four characteristics woefully lacking in our current political and government processes.
Social media can empower us, casting disinfecting light onto the all-too-often hidden agendas of partisan politics, empire-building bureaucrats, and corrupt special interests. Information is power--and, more than in any previous time in history, information and power can be shared far beyond elites.
Extraordinary, disruptive innovation, accountability and citizen involvement can be achieved by enacting a statutory presumption that all activities of all three branches of the federal government shall be opened to social media. Exemptions will have to be justified and identified, shifting the burden of expectations of all concerned. Transparency can move from lip service to reality. Leveraging the biggest platform with the broadest demographic, at the speed of digital, can result in a massive transfer of power from politicians, bureaucrats and interest groups to we, the people.
Imagine: citizens driving real change--rather than passively responding to the morsels of "change" offered up by the passing parade of conventional politicians in evanescent sound bites.
All too often in today’s Washington, monumental problems are little more than political footballs to be batted around for personal gain. Imagine a new Washington, where solutions to our nation’s problems are sought via crowd-sourcing on social networks, from across the nation and around the world. Imagine moving from endless "debates" scripted by partisans and interest groups, to an ongoing process of disruptive innovation, fostering and fostered by an ever-increasing cycle of engaged citizenship in the best American tradition. This kind of 21st century leadership might appear novel compared to the second half of the 20th century--but would surely be recognizable to those from earlier times, such as Jefferson and Madison, Tocqueville and Emerson.
A presumption of transparency is an indispensable first step of a social media revolution. Today, even the most basic information is often cloaked purposefully or hidden indirectly within government, rendering it impracticable for citizens to locate, much less aggregate into an actionable format. An egregious example is the resistance to providing information on public pensions in many jurisdictions. There is no reason such information cannot be made readily available to citizens on their laptops—and to anyone in the world who might have information or ideas which could serve the public interest in any given context.
As social media is woven into the fabric of the political process, government officials will be forced to justify their actions to constituents--indeed, to the world--rather than routinely rationalize their actions (and inaction) among themselves and their interest group patrons. We know from sad experience that simply asking politicians to hold themselves accountable is a fool's errand. Bringing social media into government operations can ensure that accountability will take place daily, in real time, via social media--not just on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years.
The first step will be to enact a government wide social media mandate. Its ultimate source of authority is the foundational principle of our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: all government power is derived from the consent of the people. The mandate would include a presumption of 100% social media participation, governed by a comprehensive social media policy to which all branches of the federal government would be bound.
At the federal level, this could be initiated with legislative proposals and hearings which themselves examine these issues using social media. It would also be possible for a state to make itself a laboratory, through a combination of legislation, executive orders, and/or ballot initiatives.
Representative examples of core covenants of a social media policy could include:
- A first step could be a new "Bill of Rights," declaring first principles, such as a presumption of transparency for all government activities.
- Such a "Bill of Rights" could be created by legislation and/or by citizen initiative.
- Henceforth, information on all public programs and spending would be made easy to access and immediately available to citizens on the Internet.
- Henceforth, all legislative and regulatory proposals would be made available for public review and comment on the Internet. A unified website would be offered so that such proposals could be located by any citizen in an easy-to-access format, intended to convey and receive actionable information.
- Henceforth, legislation and regulation would be required to be posted for specified periods, to ensure meaningful participation. Legislation or regulation failing to meet such requirements would be publicly tagged for additional public notice, input and reconsideration.
- Henceforth, public input and suggestions would be made available in a shared, common format for others to comment on or add to.
- Henceforth, curation and other involvement would encouraged for non-governmental, third-party entities along wiki lines.
- Initial areas for testing of extensive social media norms could be established, such as health care and budgetary reform.