Personal Democracy Forum conference: initial themes

“So what’s this conference you’re going to?” asked my friends, not
braced for an explanation that usually took me more than ten minutes.
Ultimately, though, they all expressed excitement about the ideas driving

Personal Democracy Forum

These friends care about politics. They argue over
all the issues, and at some level they take note of the processes that
often matter more than any arguments. But although
some know what an API was and a few even understood the concept of
mash-ups, it’s remarkable how completely they had been bypassed by the
current movement toward open government, whose importance to the Obama
administration was signaled by his release of a

memorandum on transparency and open government

on his first full day in office.

I hooked my friends through the idea of an irreversible political
shift. Not a regulatory regime that could be dismantled like the
agencies responsible for civil rights, or a mandate that could be
defunded like federal housing initiatives–no, in this case a movement
integrating the public into government functioning, and that therefore
creates an external constituency that helps to perpetuate the system;
an ecosystem of non-governmental organizations that will react
precipitously and aggressively if the government tries to shut them

Digging for themes

PDF is appropriately held in New York City, a culturally open
megalopolis that is ethnically and politically uncategorizeable. Free
speech holds forth on the subways where the exhortations of the
homeless prove that the great art of oratory is still alive.

A thousand people signed up for the conference (leading, of course, to
more than a thousand Twitterers). At the gorgeous Jazz at Lincoln
Center location, the Rose auditorium was totally filled, and the
hallway was choked as attendees strove to reach pitifully undersized
rooms for breakout sessions.

As a conference with a contemporary, tech-oriented bent, PDF ripples
off into all kinds of online resources. At several points the keynotes
were held against a

real-time twitter feed
goading on the feeding frenzy by showing the accounts of the people
who tweeted the most. This focus on immediate response–and on
quantity of response–had a specific effect on the consciousness of
the audience. The twitter feed reinforced through highlighting and
repetition the most provocative sound bites and the statements most
clearly relating to current issues at the top of attendees’ minds

This is a useful function to play, but the provocative utterance and
timely issue is only one superficial level of conference
engagement. We all need to take away what we’ve experienced, sit with
it a bit, and look for underlying themes that represent a significant
trends that can guide us.

Give a few hours for reflection, I’ll use this blog to synthesize
three recurring themes I heard during the first day. I’m sure more
ideas will settle out as I spend even more time thinking through these
two days of meetings.

The prerequisite: the power for change lies with the public

It’s scary being a politician, let alone the an agency head. These
people may seem indescribably powerful to the rest of us, but they
live in fear of public pillory triggered by their own missteps.

Jeff Jarvis listed, as one of his four key elements of change, the
ability for government to fail without risk of recrimination. David
Weinberger approached the same theme from a different direction,
talking about how all wisdom is provisional, emerging, and
scattered. Vivek Kundra and Beth Noveck–who will be speaking
tomorrow–have repeatedly made similar statements in the context of
bringing the innovation culture of the Silicon Valley to the area
around Foggy Bottom.

In my

first ramp-up blog for PDF

I talked about a four-part cycle for successful public/government
Perhaps we need to start the cycle earlier, or add some kind of
parallel cycle, to recognize that the public has to make the
commitment asked by Jarvis: the promise to show forbearance when the
government fails and to grant it a mandate to do innovation.

The platform for democracy: infrastructure we all need

If one engages in some deep listening, you can hear beneath all the
celebrations of transparency a recognition that success depends on
several elements of infrastructure. Early experiments in open
government may produce exemplary and even spectacular successes, but
the culture won’t take hold until this platform is in place.

Computing networking and computer technology are the most obvious
requirement. Mark McKinnon, a Republican communications strategist,
called for universal broadband during his keynote.

But as audience members pointed out, literacy is another requirement:
basic literacy as well as media-savvy literacy and knowledge of the
tools that let one participate.

Ethnologist dana boyd took the discussion to the next level by pointing
out that even when people do go online and do use social media, they
self-segregate by race, class, and educational status. Her case study
for this claim was limited (the demographics of MySpace users versus
Facebook users) but the statements she culled from young people showed
that the digital divide is possibly even deeper online than these
social divisions are offline.

I believe that a predilection for different forums and ways of
interacting online doesn’t have to prevent different races and classes
from coming together on issues of common interest, such as health
care. But boyd’s point that people set up online barriers that make it
harder for them communicate across these barriers is salient. She
pointed out that we need to recognize that the sites we visit are not
the same sites everyone visits, to spend time on the sites of people
we want to influence or collaborate with, and to embrace different
modes of interaction among different social groups.

Finally, open discussion requires a tolerant environment. Recent
events in Iran, as well as the introduction of Internet filtering
software in China, show that governments can choke off civil society
online; the technology was described as a cat-and-mouse game where
both the side of information dissemination and the side of repression
learn how to increase their power.

Time to tune in: we can’t tolerate static

The last theme I’ll highlight from the first day is the sense that we
can’t stand still. Americans (and particularly young Americans) expect
more and more that we can have a say, that we can move quickly and
have choices, that we can contribute to decisions and their
implementation. We’ve already seen how many businesses (not all, of
course) that fail to keep pace with these expectations are shrinking.
If governments don’t meet the expectations, people won’t be able to
replace it the way they replace businesses, but there could be
increased feelings of alienation and increased social dissatisfaction.

Miscellaneous insights from speakers and participants


announced today a site that brings together people with needs and
problem-solvers, using a challenge model similar to the
Netflix prize or the
software firm. In publishing a challenge, someone can offer money or
just recruit people to offer thanks. Respondents may be motivated to
solve the challenge by intangible rewards as well as
money. ChallengePost offers advice on how formulate a good challenge
and judge it expertly, but the form of each challenge is the
prerogative of those who post it.


Digital Literacy Contest

tries to develop a generation of problem-solvers who can analyze the
streams of government data coming online. They will run contests in
high schools and colleges that start with test problems and then move
to questions to which they do not have the answers. When several
students converge on the same solution, it is published for the public

Morley Winograd of
briefly analyzed Ron Paul’s failure in the presidential election
despite his sophisticated use of social media. If I understood
Winograd, the medium–which is well constituted for bringing groups
together–contrasted too much with the message of individualistic

In a forum on participatory medicine, Esther Dyson said of the current
health care debate, “We’re focusing too much on health care and not
enough on health, just as one might complain that the government
focuses too much on laws and not enough on getting people to do good
things.” This was the start of a session that discussed ways patients
and doctors could use information sharing to improve outcomes and
lower costs.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called in over Skype instead of
coming to the conference. Over his call he announced an expansion of
the famous
and various initiatives to accept public complaints and provide public
data online. I was glad Skype was available for the call, but I find
it odd for the government to be using commercial services (Kundra
moving staff to Google Docs, YouTube hosting White House videos,
agencies going on Facebook, etc.). I can see why the government wants
to use available social media for convenience, and it provides a
familiar access method for constituents. But eventually governments
should develop their own public-domain software, tailored to
government needs and open to all.

Blair Levin, who is designing a national broadband plan at the FCC,
started out buttering up the audience by making fun of incumbent
telephone companies, then gave us a “homework assignment” of reviewing
and making improvements to its presentation at the the July 2nd FCC
meeting, material for a set of staff workshops in August, and plans to
be make in the Fall to do research. A panel following Levin’s
presentation–matching up a much-applauded representative from
Free Press
with representatives from the cable and telco industries–looked at
the issue of speed. Is it fair to set a single target for speeds? Will
the FCC define broadband to more closely match more advanced

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