Software pioneer Tim O’Reilly talks about voter disconnect in TechCrunch magazine, where he writes: “Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection…. and when the vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine.”
This vending machine analogy is a good one. Not only do you often not get what you want, both the machine and government have made the decision of just what you can buy or get in the first place. You are at the mercy of the information that the system allows you to have.
Freedom of information has been a hallmark of American democracy since the nation’s founding. Make the information available, and then let the public decide. In the ‘70s, when I served as a Louisiana State Senator, I authored and enacted into law what at the time was considered to be the strongest open meetings and public records legislation in the country. And today, we have the technology – the Internet, the huge online databases, and the cloud — that should make access to this information we need to make good decisions about our government so much easier.
But in spite of the advanced technology, questionable barriers have eroded the access to public information. High copying fees, long wait times, locked government data bases, the refusal to produce requested documents based on bogus security issues, and capricious personal decisions have thwarted the public’s right to know.
Many of these obstacles are put in place by public officials wanting to conduct their business in secret. Many citizens, particularly the younger, more idealistic voters, are turned off by what they see as political cynicism. They rightly feel that the information is paid for with their tax dollars, and that they have the right to see it. Too many elected officials are offering only the vending machine, where in a world of the cloud and other advanced technology, most of this information should be easily available to whomever cares to access it over the Internet.
A number of younger voters have told me they feel the agenda of most bureaucrats and elected officials is to keep the status quo. One young woman put it bluntly: “Look, we’re all into networking and building businesses with new technology. Most of us see government not as a help, but as a hindrance. We just need for them to open up their information base, then just get out of the way and leave us alone.”
Another young man asked, “where’s the innovation, where’s the creativity in government?” He quoted Einstein’s thoughts that Imagination is more important than knowledge. “I have a number of bright, imaginative friends that are doing some really cool things and creating value,” he said. “Where’s the vision in the public sector?”
Knowing that I’d been Louisiana’s chief elections officer as Secretary of State back in the ‘80s, some young voters zinged me over the archaic election process, “You can do about anything online at home, around the clock. You can text, call an 800 number to vote on American Idol. But voting? Long lines, limited time, hanging chads; why so many barriers? That’s so last century!”
What these young people are saying is that the boundaries need to come down. No more toleration of the vending machine. Make government a two way street. Let technology put many decisions — more power of government — in the hands of citizens. Will this inspire younger voters back into the participatory fold? Right now, there seems to be a lack of younger voter enthusiasm for any candidate. We will know on November 8th whether they care enough to go vote.
“I’m not afraid to shake up the system, and government needs more shaking up than any other system I know.”
Former Texas Governor Ann Richards
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.