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Designing a Democracy Fueled by Civic Voice Data
by
Lorelei Kelly
November 11, 2020
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With civics making headlines every day, Americans cannot help but notice that elections power the direction of leadership in our democracy. The current moment—during a contested presidential transition— is a good time to remember that while elections are the leadership engine, it is the governing process that makes up the gears of our democratic system. Civic data -- information located and centered around communities across the USA-- is the fuel that generates motion. And if the presidency is the Grand Prix race, lawmaking in Congress is the less exciting but equally vital family road trip—one that demands consistent and regular group maintenance.  When it comes to lawmaking,  a destination is important, but so is a flexible roadmap. Negotiation, deliberation and compromise are requirements for any forward progress.

Image credits: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Here are two design illustrations, on the left is a legislative workflow map, on the right an engine blueprint. Each is a recognizable and foundational component of a system that relies on many moving parts to move forward.

Thinking about our democracy as a system will be useful for navigating our polarized impasse.  Lawmaking exemplifies a governing method that should represent broad public interests. But creating legislation is also complex, mysterious and slow. The process includes research, potholes, detours and long horizon views. This roundabout path for moving forward means the gears of lawmaking are overlooked in a typical news cycle. And that’s a problem for democracy because this attention gap is exploited by narrow private interests that pay millions of dollars to help navigate, grab the steering wheel and influence the direction of lawmaking. Popular social media platforms did not create our current roadblocks, but their anti-civic commercial motives have shifted our politics into overheated, overdrive. They encourage quick bludgeon tactics within a system set up for contemplation and deliberation. The result is what we’ve seen in the United States during the past few decades—increasing polarization and how wealthy access can influence outcomes in the lawmaking process. An egregious example of this, inside of Congress, is when political party organizations “sell” committee positions to donors via member appointments. This dysfunction is a bright orange warning sign. The majority of the population is left on the curb or locked in the back of the station wagon, nose against the glass. As a nation, is it possible for us to look at a common roadmap when it seems like the wealthy and connected commandeer the direction?

An unprecedented number of Americans voted last week. Will this fraught election season inspire them to further engage in democratic self-government? Voter suppression is now a visible electoral strategy.  How can we reverse this trend and make broad inclusion part of a mutual self-interest governing calculation for elected leaders? One way forward is to create new local expectations that regenerate value in democratic deliberation. Current events have brought civics into focus and we plan to channel this momentum toward strengthening democracy.  

The first step is to create alternatives to the “us vs. them” mindset so typical of modern politics. The script usually goes like this: Progressives protest for bottom up “people power” change. Conservatives invest in top down institutional capture. But we have the opportunity to edit the script using modern tools. We can create a middle ground between institutions and revolutions. Today, technology, data and the COVID emergency rules in Congress have opened up a chance to redesign our system from the middle-out.  Allow me one last driving metaphor: civic data is the fuel that keeps both the lawmaking gears and the leadership engine running. The American people generate and own this data. As the institution that sits between the federal government and regular people, Congress holds the key to forward movement.

The United States is unique in the world with its First Branch of government, built around a powerful legislature. Even more, Congress has 900 + district offices spread out across the USA. Some of the most important insights in my modernizing Congress research have come from congressional districts. During my field research, I learned about the need to develop methods for Members to gather feedback from a broader and more representative cross section of constituents. Ideally, this would happen during the brainstorming of policy and also during the lawmaking process itself. We could also think about how civic voice feedback can play a role in oversight and evaluation once a law is enacted. Constituents in a district are locals who often have valuable information, including context, and lived experience. They care deeply when it comes to issues that impact where they live. Members of Congress are natural curators. They know who has engaged productively in an information sharing process--a quality that is not determined by political party, but by shared values and community priorities.

A group of us who work on modernizing Congress developed the SIDE Event to meet this democratic need for curated information sharing. SIDE stands for Stakeholders, Individuals Data and Evidence. It is a Member moderated method for convening on an issue. Think of it as a compromise between a committee hearing and a Town Hall meeting. Select public witnesses speak and then submit tagged and formatted testimony for the record. This can happen in person in a public space like a library, park or a community center. Or, the event can now occur on a digital platform. Since last May, COVID emergency rules allow for electronic document submission both on the House floor and in committees.  This is an unprecedented opportunity to include more civic voice on the record and in legislative history.

Where will this civic voice data be stored? We propose a Civic Voice Archive. We envision this repository using a data commons model generated in a geographic location and shared as a public interest resource for lawmaking. The Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP) is particularly interested in exploring the SIDE framework in the context of environmental issues and the events that compound these issues, such as COVID19. These interconnected challenges require a strong working democracy, fueled by community input, in order to move toward a policy solution. As we push past this fractious November, let us focus our civic attention on the maintenance of our democracy, the time between elections. Together, we can  envision a future where the Civic Voice Archive could strengthen the flow of information between constituents and lawmakers and model both authentic input and productive interaction from the communities they support and represent.