Nov 10

Next Generation Democracy, by Jared Duval

I read this book on my way to the UK last week, and it really helped inform my remarks at the House of Commons. With an introduction by Tim O’Reilly, it’s a look at how open source ideas and architectures are influencing our democracy:

Thankfully, the lessons of the Internet—open standards, open-source software, and data-driven applications—are all being followed, albeit with greater or lesser focus in one project or another. (That’s true in the private sector as well.) Open APIs are being developed that will allow applications to work across the country (and eventually, internationally), rather than being bound to the systems of any one city. Projects like Code for America are working to build mechanisms for sharing code, expertise, and best practices between cities. We’re seeing new alliances between governments at the federal, state, and local levels to increase citizen services, eliminate redundancy, and reduce costs.

But it’s not all happy — he also talks about how the main focus has been on transparency and sunlight, but that that’s not nearly enough — we need to build better architectures of participation.

Yet rather than learning from its early mistakes and trying to provide for more meaningful and structured forms of public participation, the White House has since neglected the “participation” plank of the Open Government Initiative, shifting almost all of its focus to the safer realm of open data and government transparency. As the New Democrat Network has noted, the Open Government Directive “does a lot for the ‘Transparency’ part … but not much for the ‘Participation’ or ‘Collaboration’ portions … To really get the full benefit of the wisdom of the crowd, the government’s next step will have to ensure the dialogue is truly two-way.”14 Indeed, the danger that comes with focusing almost exclusively on transparency—a vital yet insufficient goal—is that we may end up seeing the failures of our government but being left with little recourse for doing anything about them. Transparency without avenues for real participation seems a bit like watching a police interrogation from behind a two-way mirror. While you can see what is going on, you have little ability to do anything if something goes wrong. And in any case, transparency has run aground as well. Abandoning his pledge to do health care around a table on C-SPAN, the president consented to a process of congressional wheeling, dealing, and capitulation to special interests, personified most by senators like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. Once the House and the Senate finally passed their divergent bills, the White House—in a rush to sign a bill—gave its blessing to skipping the conference-committee process and conducting negotiations to reconcile the two bills in private, among Democrats alone.

Obviously, I think this book is required reading for those who hope to change our government.

Nov 10

My Talk at the House of Commons

I’m currently in the middle of an extremely interesting trip called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, which Sherri Coutou and Reid Hoffman have organized for several years. it’s a fantastic trip so far, and I’ll write more about it, but wanted to share this.

Yesterday we were invited to the House of Commons here in London, and after a short speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, 5 of us participated in a panel on the impact of digital technology on the future of democracies. About 100 people attended, including several MPs and members of the House of Lords, plus people involved in running the government and figuring out what to do with technology.

It was moderated by Jon Drori (fantastic job, and fantastic guy), and the Silicon Valley folks who participated were: Reid Hoffman, Megan Smith, Joi Ito, Nancy Lublin and myself. Each of the 5 of us started by giving a 5 minute ‘provocation’ to consider, then we ran it as a more traditional panel.

I’ll write more soon; for now, my provocation follows. Would love to hear what you think. 🙂

As I started preparing my remarks, I knew that I wanted to talk, in the main, about how technology can make our democracies better. But here, in the heart of British government, it’s impossible for me not to think about a couple of British authors and imaginers of future dystopias: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

With these 2 especially, it seems a particular talent of the British to imagine horrible dysfunctional futures. Orwell in his 1984, of course, with nightmares of totalitarian control and surveillance, and oppressive government imposed on unwilling citizens. Huxley, by contrast, in Brave New World, painted a completely different picture: a citizenry of sheep happily gorging themselves on the trivial, on entertainment — with no Orwellian Ministry of Information needed at all.

In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, an American named Neil Postman figured out nearly 30 years ago that what we were going to get wasn’t Orwell’s world at all, but rather a version of Huxley’s. And while the British seem to be adept at imagining dystopias, I have to say that we Americans seem to be pretty handy at creating them. In the US now, we clearly live in Huxley’s world: news has become entertainment; political discourse, when not an oxymoron, tends to be shallow. So many of the institutions and processes that have served us well for hundreds of years are breaking down.

Much of this is due to the nature of digital technology and the Internet, allowing massive amounts of new conversation, of news without context. The thing that digital technology is best at is closing gaps: in time, in space, in relevance — and that has put real stress on our institutions. Technology is not neutral — it makes many things easier, but also many things more difficult. There are winners and losers.

Clay Shirky, writing on the massive dislocations occurring today in the newspaper industry wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in place.”

And things do feel broken today, in many ways — the forces of dystopia seem to be on the rise.
But even so, there is a lot — A LOT — to be optimistic about. The hints of a positive future show all around us. The seeds of utopia are in the ground, so to speak.

So clearly there are real opportunities here, shaped by the natural affordances of Internet and digital technology.

What we know from the work we’ve done at Mozilla on Firefox and other open source projects, is that the way we organize, the technology we use, and the customs we support — what Tim O’Reilly has called “architectures of participation” — matter greatly. Architectures of participation, like technologies themselves, aren’t neutral. Projects like Wikipedia and Mozilla Firefox have architectures that are designed to bring in collaborators from everywhere, at every level. We have very serious contributors who spend most of their time working on the core. We have nearly 100 teams working on localizing Firefox into their own language. We have entrepreneurs building companies based on extensions to the browser. We have tens of thousands of people who test our browser each night and report issues. And we have hundreds of millions of users. We’ve built architectures of participation to get people engaged in as many ways as we can.

So what’s the future utopia that’s possible with digital technology? Ideally what we get — what we create — is a system where citizens are engaged, where they feel valued and connected with their governments and each other. Where our leaders are accountable — and desire to be accountable. It’s a future where it’s just as easy to help your neighborhood as it is to help your country or your planet.
To get there, we’ll need to architect with a few key principles in mind:

  1. Transparency – where most of today’s efforts are, and critical to how we start
  2. Clarity – flip side of scale – not the same as transparency — often, transparency of information can overwhelm — without a narrative, without intent, it’s very difficult to understand the implications of the transparency itself
  3. Engagement – get everyone more educated and informed and contributing – get subject experts involved
  4. Scale – must consider neighborhood government to municipal to national to transnational
  5. Heterogeneity – life is increasingly cross-border, in all senses – trans-national – trans-company – mixture of public and private life

So my provocation turns out to be more of an exhortation, a call to action. As technologists and entrepreneurs and leaders of government, it’s our opportunity — and our responsibility — to imagine and articulate good, positive architectures of government, to engage with our colleagues and neighbors and coworkers and constituents to envision robust models for the future, in the context of ubiquitous, cheap, immediate information technology — and then to get on with making the world the way we want it.

May 09

Sunnyvale in 2010

As some of you know, I’m on the Board of Library Trustees for the City of Sunnyvale, where I live. Or at least I am for a few more weeks — my 4 year term ends next month. I’ve really enjoyed my time on the Board — I’ve contributed a little, learned a lot and generally was just more involved in civic government than I had been before. (I heartily recommend getting involved in the running of the city/county/state/country/place/community/neighborhood in which you live. It’s important.)

Anyway, I come to the end of my involvement as convinced as ever that public libraries are critically important to our lives as citizens, but also just as convinced that we’ll see a massive reinvention in many of the functions that libraries perform.

But that isn’t really what I want to write about today — what I want to talk about instead is the budget work that’s going on for the City of Sunnyvale in 2010 — the topic of our Library Board meeting tonight.

At the end of last year, Sunnyvale hired a new city manager, Gary Luebbers, who inherited, like so many other city managers around the country, a government facing massive shortfalls in revenue among other problems. The preamble to his budgetary response for the coming year is fantastic work, and let’s start with some of the context:

  • Sunnyvale’s overall budget for 09/10 is something like $150M (plus the costs for the water treatment facility and the golf course)
  • We’re expecting a decline in revenue of $13M, primarily due to a shortfall in sales tax — people & companies aren’t buying things like routers and cars as much as they used to — so we’re seeing dramatic drops
  • Beyond that, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) has seen equity declines of around 25% this year, which is leading to increased employer contributions — about $8.5M more in Sunnyvale personnel costs starting in 2011/12

So we’re seeing a 10% revenue shortfall and another 7-8% increase in costs — not to mention that after the ballot initiatives failed earlier this week, there’s an expectation that the State of California will borrow up to 8% of local property taxes (that they’ll repay eventually, but has an impact of nearly $4M in near term cash flow).

Any way you cut it, that’s a brutal context for any city to deal with — even a larger city of 100K+ residents like Sunnyvale — between revenue shortfall & increased expenditure, you’re looking at $15-20M a year.

But here’ the thing: Sunnyvale, while we’ll see cuts, is basically okay because of the extremely conservative and long-range planning that it’s done since reinvention in the 70s. We’ve got a $36M budget stabilization fund, for example — and we can draw down on that for a few years — and because of that, the cash flow interruption from the State doesn’t matter overmuch.

I have some concerns about the conservative nature of Sunnyvale city planning — I think in any normal times it’s over-constraining — but in this particular situation, facing such a brutal and cascading financial meltdown, it’s incredibly, incredibly helpful to have this strength, and is a reassuring bulwark against the effects of the broader economy.

Apr 09

Another great 2009 TEDTalk from Nate Silver

One more talk that I really enjoyed, even though he was remote in Palm Springs. Nate Silver, of fivethirtyeight.com fame (most recently).

Mar 09

Obama’s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner

Not sure why I picked this up — have been thinking a bunch about what it means to lead, how to do it, what responsibilities are. This is an interesting & useful book — I got a lot out of reading it.

[As a first disclaimer: obviously, a lot is happening now with both the stimulus package and Obama’s proposed budget. I don’t pretend to understand most of it. The stimulus seems, to me, to be the right thing to do given the current recession. The budget is more complicated and has farther reaching implications. I’m generally in favor of universal health care, don’t mind paying higher taxes, and think the overall focus on energy, education & health is right on. But the size of the deficits and the accumulated debt do worry me a lot.]

Anyway, what I liked about this book, written before Obama was actually elected, is that Kuttner goes through some presidents that didn’t just triangulate public opinion, but changed the nature of the US, the way we talked and thought about our obligations. Here are a few good quotes:

“As Doris Kearns Goodwin observes, all of the great presidents used their leadership first to transform the public understanding of national challenges and then to break through impasses made up of congressional blockage, interest-group power, voter cynicism or passivity, and conventional wisdom. In different ways, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson found allies, respectively, in the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement, as well as the press and the general public. Each president grew immensely in office. Each changed the national mood, then the direction of national policy.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge for Obama. Said another way:

“Obama will need to be a more radical president than he was a presidential candidate. Radical does not mean outside the mainstream. It means perceiving, as a leader, that radical change is necessary, discerning tacit aspirations and unmet needs in the people, and then making that radical change the mainstream view for which people clamor.”

There will be lots of debate, questioning, and argument about where the US should go — that’s good & right, and should happen. That it happen in a transparent & open way is crucial, and I think that that’s happening, irrespective of any particular policies in the first 60 days.

But a long way to go, so we’ll see what happens — in any event, this book helped me think through the challenge of leading from the Oval Office, and the opportunity as well.