"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Tuesday, November 25, 2008


A couple of articles in response to Obama's http://www.change.gov/ transitional website and the prospects of internet technologies broadening participatory democracy under an Obama administration. - Editor

Under Obama, a newly interactive government?

The president-elect aims to use the Internet to make government more participatory.

By Alexandra Marks Staff writer / November 13, 2008 edition
New York

Want to give Barack Obama a piece of your mind about what’s wrong with the United States government? Just go to www.change.gov and click on “Share Your Ideas.”

A man named John from Seattle did: “I am so tired of special interests getting the best of us all.”

So did Lexington from San Diego: “I’d like to see an agenda that focuses on promoting transparency….”

The website is the official, online face of the Office of the President Elect. It gives a first glimpse of how Mr. Obama intends to harness technology to create a cutting-edge, participatory democracy in a similar way he used Internet connectivity to transform campaigning.

The idea is premised on the digital world’s potential to transform the US into one large cyber town-hall meeting: Every citizen will ideally have a window into the workings of government and an opportunity to tell elected leaders exactly what they think of it.

It’s an idealistic notion that will require some concrete changes – from a large investment in upgrading government computers to a change in the rules and regulations that guide government employees. Most important, it will require a radical transformation of the entrenched culture of secrecy and the dominance of special interests that define how Washington operates.

“This will be the first president who has an opportunity to use interactive technology in ways we’ve never seen – it really is remarkable,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit organization that promotes greater government accountability and transparency in Washington. “What was so unique about the Obama campaign [was] that interactivity was real. When people commented on something, they saw things happen. That’s what the people are expecting the president to do now.”

Obama will not be the first online president. That was Bill Clinton, who set up the White House’s first website in 1994 and in 1996 ordered all federal agencies to get online as well. The websites were pretty rudimentary sources of information. President Bush took that a step further, turning the White House website into a “repository of all the things the president was doing on that day,” according to David Almacy, who was the White House’s Internet director from 2005 to 2007.

But as Mr. Almacy discovered, much of what the White House could do was constrained by a lack of resources. He had a staff of six to run the White House’s Internet operations. The Obama campaign had 95 people. Then there are the federal rules and regulations.

For instance, when Mr. Bush went to New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, he urged Americans to log on to RedCross.org. Almacy decided to put up a link on the White House website. Within hours, the White House counsel’s office was directing him to take the link down because it might be perceived as endorsing one organization over another, says Almacy.

There are privacy questions, too. Many websites use “cookies,” electronic calling cards that websites leave on your computer to identify you if you return. Federal privacy policy discourages their use, saying there should be a “presumption” that they’re not used on federal websites.

But there is a loophole. Cookies can be used if an agency can demonstrate a compelling need and gets special permission. The Obama transition team is taking advantage of that. Change.gov uses cookies and states that in its privacy policy.

“Obama will probably run into some more rules that are going to need amending,” says Robert Bluey, director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “But I think it’s absolutely great that people will have more opportunity to have a say in government and it’s pretty evident from change.gov that’s the direction that Obama’s going to take.”

Obama has set out a clear road map as to how he hopes to accomplish that. It starts with the appointment of a chief technology officer with cabinet-level powers who will oversee technological operations across the government.

“Most people from the 20th century think of technology as a separate issue from others like healthcare or energy, but it’s not just one of many issues [like one of many slices of a pie], it’s the pan that supports innovation and change for all of the other issues,” says Andrew Rasiej, copresident of techpresident.com. “It’s essential that the Obama administration put someone in a position who understands that.”

Federal employees will also have to change how they operate, setting up pilots in citizen participation, which means “Wikis [websites where visitors can change the content], comment sections, collaborative projects, public review of pending policies, and online dialogues,” says Mr. Bass.

That may not sit well with some longtime federal employees. “It’s a radical change,” says Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “But it’s in line with the way our government is supposed to work.”

Then there’s the larger question of whether a citizenry that’s disillusioned with government is ready to get more involved. The optimists here abound.

“What’s been proven through this election process is that there’s a newly engaged and empowered citizenry that is ready, able, and willing to partner with the Obama administration on rebooting American democracy in a 21st-century model of participation,” says Mr.Rasiej.


The Obama Team's Online Transition

CBS Tech Analyst Larry Magid Looks At How A Web 2.0 Campaign Is Going Presidential

SILICON VALLEY, Calif. Nov. 14, 2008

(CBS) When it comes to the use of technology, President Obama will have a hard act to follow - candidate Obama.

As has been widely pointed out, the Obama campaign was masterful in the way it used the Web, social networking sites, text messaging and other technology to assure its victory on Nov. 4. In addition to raising consciousness and money online, the campaign even used text messaging to remind people to go to the polls.

The Obama Web site made it very easy for people to donate money, find local events and - as did John McCain’s site - give supporters online access to a phone bank of voters to help spread the word and get out the vote.

But now that we’re in a transitional period, the question is how the incoming administration will continue to use technology to further the president’s agenda. A sitting president isn’t in the same position as a presidential candidate. For example, it’s not at all clear to me whether he can legally use his campaign e-mail or text messaging lists to promote his presidential agenda.

But we do have a clue as to one way he might use technology. The “Office of the President-Elect” has a new Web site called simply change.gov, which appears to be almost an extension of Obama’s presidential campaign.

It shows news stories, including an embedded MSNBC video of transition team Co-chair Valerie Jarret’s appearance on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. There is also a link to Obama’s radio address from last Saturday and, of course, a video of Obama’s victory speech from election night.

There's also a bit of meat on this site, including information about the president’s Cabinet and - perhaps of great interest to some - information about how to apply for a job at the White House and other federal agencies, including an “online expression of interest form” for job seekers to put their toe in the water.

But, if you’re inclined to express an interest, the site warns that "if and when you are considered for a specific position, you will be asked to fill out additional forms, including financial disclosures, and be subject to other reviews which may include FBI background checks."

As the New York Times has reported, candidates for high ranking jobs and cabinet positions will also be asked to provide detailed information about their backgrounds, including their online personas; any emails or blog posts that might embarrass the President-elect, and any profiles on Facebook or other social networks and "aliases" or "handles" used to communicate over the Internet.

I wonder if they will scrutinize your list of MySpace or Facebook friends to see who you've been "palling around" with online.

Change.gov also includes a “blog,” but aside from the fact that it’s organized in reverse chronological order, it’s not all that bloggish. It’s mostly well polished short articles and a couple of videos but, unlike many blogs, there are no links for user comments.

There is a link where you can “share your story” about “what this campaign and this election means to you.” I’m not sure if they’re deliberately still calling it a campaign as if to say that there are still struggles ahead or if they just cloned this from the old campaign Web site and forgot to update the language.

Speaking of updating, CNET’s Delcan McCullagh wrote here on CBSNews.com that the site initially had detailed agendas for Homeland Security and technology that were deleted over the weekend, to be replaced by “a vague statement saying that Obama and running mate Joe Biden have a ‘comprehensive and detailed agenda’” that will “‘bring about the kind of change America needs.’”

The deletion of that agenda could very well be the beginning of recognition that Obama is no longer in the mode of making campaign promises but on the verge of having to deliver actual policy.

That’s a natural transition that all presidents-elect have had to deal with, but in the past they weren’t quite as exposed to online scrutiny as is this incoming administration.

Although it’s not exactly what I’m looking for, I am pleased to see that change.gov also has a place where visitors can share their "vision for what America can be, where President-elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?” It falls way short of what I’d like to see in terms of participatory democracy, but it is a start.

The incoming administration can start by using the Internet to fulfill its promise to make government more transparent, by using the Internet to share information on legislation and policy discussions. But to do so effectively, it must be in a way we can all understand and with a mechanism for people to have their voices heard.

To be understandable, information can't just be in government-speak. The Library of Congress's THOMAS Web site has long made it possible for citizens to see the text of proposed legislation but I take my hat off to any layperson who can actually understand the text of a congressional bill. What's needed is for non-partisan interpreters to objectively explain these bills in language that we can all understand.

We also need a transparent feedback mechanism where citizens have the option of sharing their opinions, not only with the administration, but with fellow citizens through blogs and forums. I would like to see the President (or at least his surrogates) actively participate in an open online discussion. Admittedly, that could get so lengthy as to be become unwieldy but if these discussions do blossom, I'm sure news media and bloggers who follow these discussions will bring interesting nuggets to light.

Change.gov is clearly a work in progress which is certainly understandable considering how little time has passed since the election. My hope is that the administration will extend this effort into something that truly does involve citizens in government. We can all use a little more sunshine.

By Larry Magid

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