Democracy in the United States was established nearly 250 years ago when news traveled at the speed of a horse and real-time collaboration required sharing a physical location. Today, ubiquitous internet access, smartphones, social media, and online collaboration tools have transformed how we work, play and consume, but the basic structure of our politics remains the same.
The result is that during an era of massive innovation, our static politics have disempowered the public and made our representative democracy feel more like a “consumer” one. Parties are brands; politicians are products; and our job as consumer-citizens is to purchase “our” politician with our votes. U.S. media and education systems strengthen the notion of “consumer democracy” by obsessing over the theatrics that motivate people to vote instead of educating people about the issues, policies and processes that impact all our lives. The public is not pleased. Congress and the President’s approval ratings are at record lows, as are voter participation rates.
How can democracies use technologies to strengthen themselves? Answers are emerging around the world, with the central theme being that technology can make politics more engaging, successful and legitimate by enabling people to become active producers of political outcomes instead of passive consumers.
Two examples of “participatory democracy” are taking place in Taiwan and Madrid. In Taiwan, the “vTaiwan” project encourages the public to participate in a multi-month, multi-phase “consultation process” where citizens give issue-specific feedback offline and online. They use that feedback to create their own legislative and administrative proposals, and the most popular proposal are ratified and implemented by the government. Over the last three years, tens of thousands of people have participated, resulting in more than a dozen new laws and administrative actions. In Madrid, city government built a platform that enables citizens to debate issues and propose legislation. If that legislation meets a popularity threshold, it automatically becomes law.
Surprisingly, there are few if any truly participatory political projects in the United States. While New York City has “participatory budgeting,” its many restrictions and limited scope makes it fundamentally different than the open-ended participatory processes practiced overseas.
New York City’s Public Advocate is supposed to be the voice of all New Yorkers. As such, it’s the perfect position to bring a technology-enabled collective decision-making process to our City. Since it’s democratically elected, the Public Advocate can give “participatory democracy” real legitimacy. And since it has consultative status with the City Council and many city agencies, the Public Advocate can bring the public’s will directly to the people who run our city.
I’m running for Public Advocate to put “participatory democracy” on the ballot in November. With your help, we can put the Public exactly where it should be — directly in charge of the Public Advocate.
This article was originally published September on Education Update