Thursday, January 22, 2009

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clipped from That Matters

For Release Sunday, January 25, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce

By Neal Peirce

Big Breaking News on the cyber-politics front: The Obama transition web site -- -– has been renamed and started operations. With a heartening message from the Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the White House:

"President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the internet will play an important role in that."

And Congress has an open invitation to join the act. YouTube, which began airing Barack Obama's weekly messages right after his election, is now creating two special congressional web pages, one for senators, another for representatives.

The federal lawmakers will be invited to post videos with their remarks on topics of their choosing, inviting constituents to respond with questions and comments.

And now there's even competition on the move to Internet-era governance. The social action web site has seized on an early Obama idea: grassroots Americans should be able to generate fresh ideas, that officialdom needs to hear.

Four days before the inauguration, (which actually preceded Obama's site by two years) released results of its own Internet survey. More than 658,000 votes were cast to select 10 favorite ideas (out of 7,800 submitted) that participants believed the new administration should consider.

Conducted jointly with the web site MySpace, the 10 top ideas have a distinctly leftward tilt–repeal of the USA Patriot Act, legalizing same-sex marriage, free universal health care, labeling all food containing genetically engineered ingredients, and higher education for all students.

But one recommendation favored small business, classically defended by conservatives: to exempt small American toy-makers from the expensive, extended testing of their products for children that Congress required last year in response to lead-tainted playthings imported from China.

And like early polling on Obama's own site, major reform of drug laws–including a halt to arrests for medical or recreational use of marijuana–garnered some of the highest votes. Obama's transition team responding by saying he opposes legalization of marijuana. But this is one issue where the public's jumping ahead of our new leader.

Which is precisely the opportunity that web democracy brings: it lets the public both pose and vote on controversial issues that political leaders would just as soon ignore.

Which raises a new possibility: Could a deliberative national process involve more people–not just registering their votes on issues, but helping to frame issues and solutions? That's the plan of three organizations–AmericaSpeaks, Demos, and Everyday Democracy–in a recent report on strengthening U.S. democracy.

The idea is to have our new president "call for regular national discussions of one million Americans or more on the issues of highest public concern, like foreign policy, energy, taxes, health care, and jobs." There'd be a White House Office of Citizen Engagement to organize the process, together with a non-partisan working group of citizens appointed by the majority and minority leadership of Congress.

Americans could participate several ways–by conversations in homes, workplaces or community centers, by participating in national town meetings linked by satellite, or in small groups "meeting" online in "virtual" discussion space before registering their priorities.

The idea is to create a truly serious nation-wide discussion process. There would be skilled facilitators and participants would receive "balanced, accessible educational materials to ensure that everyone begins with adequate context to come to informed judgments."

Wow! Not just opinions, but judgments based on clear, objective information? What a radical idea!

And the recommendations couldn't disappear into some black hole–Congress would be required to hold follow-up hearings to address them, and the president to issue a written response. The idea's that the media would then treat the dialogue-and-report process as major news.

Imagine if there'd been such a process shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Or now on the future fiscal issues in Medicare and Social Security. Or on truly tough-to-settle issues, like correcting America's world-leading prison population levels. The power of special-interest lobbies to dominate hearings, or distort public debate with misleading advertising, would likely be dealt a major blow.

The idea sounds like an Obama natural. But why couldn't forward-looking members of Congress, kicking the traces of lobbyist influence, take a lead in advocating it?

As this inventive citizen consultative process gained momentum at the national level, it could also be tried out too on the state, regional or city level–again addressing critical issues and favoring the citizenry over monied lobbies in an unprecedented way.

The change we've been waiting for? I think so.

Neal Peirce's e-mail is

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