TAN+N -- News About Projects

III. COMPUTER-ASSISTED DEMOCRACY

The Center for Civic Networking and SDIN
The M.U.S.I.C. Network System, Inc.
The Minnesota E-Democracy Project
National Public Telecomputing Network
G7 On-Line (G7OL)
Project Vote Smart
Window On State Government: Texas State Comptroller's On-Line Forum
Reinventing America -- On-Line
Power Vote

Introduction

    Perhaps the greatest number of experiments on "electronic democracy," however, are in seeing how computers, in particular, can be used to "enhance," "improve," "update," and/or "modernize" present representative democratic systems around the world. Thus, they are large in number and relatively conservative, i.e., "reformist," in nature. They are not there to "rock the boat." They are there to steady the boat for the mutual benefit of all who are on the boat. A few try to enlarge the boat. Very few try to change the very nature of the craft, e.g., to move from oars and sails to solar or nuclear power.

For this reason, then, almost all fall into the first category of empowerment and rate only one or two lightning bolts from TAN+N. Those that get 2 have an additional goal or element, for instance, and include room and encouragement for citizen deliberations as part of the system.

On the other hand, some "computer assisted democracy" projects that do empower, are not in this category, i.e., they were in the voting-by-phone/computer category and/or the "electronic town meeting" group. The ones here rely solely on computers and intend to bolster or reinforce the present structure or process of the present representative system.

So what do we mean by this? Well, the present system around the world--in all its sizes, colors, and shapes--is under attack as being: (a) too remote from the citizenry; (b) inaccessible to ordinary citizens; (c) too confusing for citizens to understand.

So, governments and friends of government (like foundations, corporations, and the like) are investing money into employing computers and the internet as a method of addressing these concerns about the present system. Governments often refer to these projects as "on line" services. Community activists like to discuss the "free" and "networking" aspects of these projects. And some private companies see a potential "market" for making government and politics computer-user friendly.

Below are a number of major projects along these lines. If you know of others that we have failed to include...or believe we should be rating them differently ... please do not hesitate to inform us and we will make amends in TAN+N2.

line break

The Center for Civic Networking and SDIN
A project of The Center for Civic Networking (CCN), a non-profit Co.
Miles Fidelman
91 Baldwin Street, Charlestown, MA 02129 USA
Tel: 617.241.9205
Richard Civille
rciville@cap.gwu.edu or rciville@civicnet.org
PO Box 65272
Washington, D.C. 20035 USA

The Center for Civic Networking is a non-profit organization dedicated to applying information infrastructure to the broad public good--such as ...providing 'electronic town halls' to broaden citizen participation in governance.

They believe that 'electronic town halls' must be built in the context of the emerging world-wide network infrastructure, must be closely coordinated with the non-electronic processes of government, and should improve the process of deliberation. Actually, improving the quality of citizen deliberation, particularly through the use of facilitated computer communications networks, is the major emphasis of CCN.

Electronic Town Meetings, Economic Planning and Sustainable Development in New England.

At the present time, they are well into their major ongoing project, SDIN, a regional demonstration project focused on public involvement in charting a sustainable future for New England.

The notion that economic development, environmental protection, and quality of life are inter-related and must be planned for on a long-range sustainable basis--is a particularly potent focal point for a civic networking project. The metaphor of sustainability is garnering widespread support across communities that have been traditional adversaries (e.g., environmentalists and business advocates)...The issues involved require extensive deliberation at the local, regional and national levels--thus the use of networks as a communications vehicle is particularly appropriate. Extensive amounts of information are required to analyze the issues and options involved, requiring the use of computer and network facilities.

Players Include...

The Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Multi- Cultural Arts Center, the Sustainable Cambridge Coalition, Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, Boston Edison, Cambridge Business Development Center, Cambridge City Clerk's Office, Cambridge Public Library, Metro Boston Library Network.

Back to the list of projects

line break

The M.U.S.I.C Network System, Inc.
71 Bond Street
Bridgewater, New Jersey 08807 USA

http://mmassey.www.media.mit.edu/people/mmassey/MUSICintro.html

M.U.S.I.C stands for "Multi-Users Sessions in Community." It is a computer based system of informed discussion and decision making at the community level. In fact, its whole purpose is to utilize the most modern computer technologies and techniques to reinvigorate local, geographic communities and their natural leadership.

This networking system is based on one developed at The M.I.T. Media Lab and is designed to "support activities taking place in real proximal communities as opposed to virtual communities. By placing terminals in homes, community centers, health centers, educational institutions, and churches, M.U.S.I.C. is attempting to present a model for how local neighborhood infrastructure can be advanced by information technologies just as national information infrastructure (NII) is also being advanced by these systems."

The idea is to get people talking together again in neighborhoods and learning how to solve their own problems with the help of these technologies. The pilot programs for this model were tested "successfully" in Boston, Mass., and Newark, N.J. The organizers state they are presently "extending those two projects and connecting them to other projects using the M.U.S.I.C network...in rural Mississippi and inner-city Chicago."

This system also has capabilities of private discussions, of on-line voting, surveying and polling. It can interface with other media and is designed to help facilitate all kinds of internet projects in school systems in inner city and rural areas.

Back to the list of projects

line break

edemo2.gif (4991 bytes)
The Minnesota E-Democracy Project
Steve Clift, Director
Minnesota State Legislature
http://www.e-democracy.org/

This is one of the most ambitious and successful computer-assisted representative democracy project going right now. This is due, in some part, to the fact that it is a non-profit organization, citizen-based volunteer project that works with the Minnesota state legislature, local newspapers, etc....not for them.

In addition, while the Minnesota E-democracy Project has focused itself as a computer on-line experiment ... it has gone well beyond that by integrating itself with other media, in particular, television, radio and newspapers. In fact, as its director, Steve Cliftt, notes: "It was the general press coverage of our 1994 effort that helped us build (citizen) participation (in the project)."

Furthermore, its major goal, thankfully, is not merely cost-benefits and public accessibility, but "to increase citizen participation in elections and public discourse through online civic forums and collections of important information."

Along these lines, it is creating what it calls "MN Forums" -- which will blend the advantages of e-mail participation with the WWW. Civic and political organizations will be invited to host well-planned and moderated public on-line conferences. Once MN-Forum is launched (in 1996), one or two groups a month will each sponsor a public on-line conference on an issue important to Minnesotans. Announcements of new conferences will be distributed via the MN-DEMOCRACY e-mail list and be published via other media in the state. And, of course, where possible, these conferences will be informed by the "detailed non-partisan ... information."

So, it is not surprising to find one of the founders of The Center for Civic Networking praising it as "the best example of using the Internet to support active citizen participation in the election process." This is because Minnesota E-democracy uses a very similar format to CCN's, but employs it in political campaigns and on policy issues while CCN's focus, at this time, is more towards long-range planning.

Also, Clift has set up another system-friendly website called Web, White and Blue--(WW+B)--which is itself a data base and which links with numerous other web data bases about candidates for public office, election issues, and the like.   Thus, putting it all together, Clift is developing a large, multi-service web-site that will assist voters in many jurisdictions to get relevant data and opinion and to discuss issues and candidates.  Just click on the WW+B logo below to go to it.

ww+b.gif (6124 bytes)


Back to the list of projects

line break

National Public Telecomputing Network "Free-Nets"

The National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) is a non profit organization, based in Cleveland, Ohio, that claims to be the "parent for the freenet community computer network system worldwide."

It s basic goal is definitely to help empower many citizens who want to be connected to the information superhighway via computers but who have no access to the equipment, skills and resources. So, NPTN is there to make up the difference.

It does this by becoming an "electronic public library" through the volunteer efforts of local community people who have the prerequisite skills and who are willing to share them free of charge. Thus: "freenet." What they do is to install computers in a variety of public locations in various inner city and rural communities so that ordinary citizens have access to them. The volunteers plug these poorer members of the community into the electronic system allowing them to use email and to gain access to information and to public officials--including government services, legal services, and medical services.

Back to the list of projects

line break

G7 On-Line (G7OL)
European Commission
R. Perry, Contact
Brussels, Belgium
Tel: (44) 1603.704708
Fax: (44) 1603.704817

About a year ago, "The G7 Information Society Conference" was held in Brussels, Belgium. So, for those of you who thought G7 was just about global finance, Surprise! Also, for those who thought G7 included just the Big Seven, also represented were Denmark, Finland, Holland, etc.

In any event, the main objectives of this conference and the governments who participated were twofold. They were to use online technologies to help governments: (a) reduce costs of paperwork and (b) to improve the delivery of their services, e.g., "accessibility." How do they put it? "The organization and procedures of government should become transparent to the public. Instead of government being perceived in terms of a number of separate, unrelated entities operating in particular government buildings and within office hours, the 'single window' approach to service will result in government being more accessible and responsive. Overall quality of service will be significantly improved. This, in turn, will affect the public's perception of, and interaction with, government."

Notice the emphasis on improving the public's "perception." Notice the emphasis on a business-like "improvement of services." Notice that the idea of citizen empowerment is implied by making information and other services more accessible. And to make sure that even the lowliest citizen can use these new systems, there is even concern voiced about how to let them in. "It will be important not to put at a disadvantage those less comfortable with the technology. Some training programs will have to be offered."

The Conference also set up future conferences among collaborating governments so that they could share information about their experimentation and "develop a comprehensive view of applications relating to government on-line." Ultimately, their goal "is to deliver measurable results" along these lines "by the year 2000," particularly in the realm of "cost/benefit assessment."

It is extremely important for us to note that TAN+N has included this kind of project in this issue because we do believe it to be of at least marginal "empowerment" benefit. However, it is also important to note that TAN+N believes that the items of "perception" and "cost benefit" are of greater significance to those who design and run these "government on line projects."

As one observer of this project has put it: "I doubt myself that teledemocracy is understood the way we want it to be. On the other hand, how could it be, among officials who are used to thinking themselves superior and used to a certain power over ordinary citizens? Many civil servants think that citizens are stupid and cannot be relied on to understand anything wider and nobler than their wallet, where the government is the repository of wisdom."

Back to the list of projects

line break

Project Vote Smart
129 NW Fourth Street, #240
Corvallis, OR 97330 USA
Tel: 503.754.2746 or 1-800-622-7627
http://www.vote-smart.org/

Project VoteSmart is a nonprofit/non-partisan organization devoted to creating a better informed electorate as it goes about its business of selecting its U.S. government officials. In the Project's own words, it aims to create a "Voter's Self-Defense System" -- one that shatters "candidates" ability to manipulate and abuse them." Project VoteSmart, enrolling the efforts of hundreds of citizen volunteers and student interns is a "source of accurate information ... put directly into the hands of the people."

So, what kind of data on all these candidates for Congress and the presidency does it provide citizens?

In addition, Project VoteSmart tries to educate the public by producing a Voter's Self Defense Manual and the U.S. Government Owner's Manual. These contain a lot of the above information but also include some biographical data, committee assignments and other pertinent information. They also have a video about the project called "It's Time for a Change."

How much do they cost? Not a cent. If you are interested in them, contact VoteSmart.

You will also find that VoteSmart has paid student internships to help them run their program. They recently got a generous foundation grant to support their student interns who they often credit with the success of their program.

Because of the terrific amount and presentation of quality information, free resources and paid internships, we give this project the maximum rating in Category 1: 2 bolts.

Back to the list of projects

line break

Window On State Government
Texas State Comptroller's On-Line Forum

John Sharp, Comptroller of Public Accounts
http://www.window.state.tx.us/

This was a computer forum on the tax code of Texas run out of the State Comptroller's Office. John Sharp, who holds that position, made it open to anyone in the State of Texas who cared enough to rethink how taxes are paid in the state.

The Forum ran for a week and information about the tax code was provided on line. The staff tracked the discussion and culled suggestions from those who participated. The idea was to distribute the results of this forum to the state legislature and other important political leaders. However, there was no binding quality to the forum and/or its results. Also, the results were, in effect, a deliberated poll, but one from a self-selected sample.

There is another possible result, one suggested by those who believe there could well be a hidden agenda to the project, i.e., that the Comptroller was using this as an informal focus group to build up support and ideas for a run for the Governor in the near future.

Back to the list of projects

line break

Reinventing America--On Line
The Markle Foundation
http://www.pathfinder.com/reinventing

This is a similar project to the one sponsored by the Texas Comptroller's Office. However, there are a number of differences.

First, it emanates directly from a foundation, not from an actual government office.

Second, it runs for 6 months, not a week.

Third, although it involves a public deliberative process via computer over government finances, it is much more complex. For instance, participants will be given a new issue each week in the conference to plug into their thinking about how to balance the federal budget. Over the period of the conference, the "players" in the game have to integrate new factors into their spending priorities ... thus forcing them to rethink them over and over again ... much like "real" legislators have to do.

At the end of the six month period, the Markle Foundation will forward the results to government leaders in Washington, D.C. Once again, this is a self-selected sample doing a type of deliberative process via informed computer conferencing.

It is hard to see how this could have more effect than similar projects coming out of a government office. What it does is fit into the pattern of other Markle projects, that is: proving over and over again that citizens do an excellent job of thinking through complex issues and that they are eminently capable of making trade-offs and bargains in order to reach common ground or a result that they believe to be in the public interest and cost effective.

The trick, though, it to get people in government to take it so seriously that they are compelled to act upon such information.

Back to the list of projects

line break

PowerVote
James Todaro, C.P.A., President
4560 Greenwood Ct.
Canton, MI 48187 USA
Tel: 1.800.847.0170 or 313.981.6026
E-mail: powervot@sojourn.com
http://www.sojourn.com/~powervot/web/

According to the founder, subscribers to PowerVote use their power of the purse to influence incumbents and campaigners on issues that are important to them (the subscribers). By this theory, PowerVote is like a broker who helps many small contributors see their money pooled so as to have greater influence than it would have if they had simply put their money into an ongoing campaign or Political Action Committee (PAC). Here's the way it works:

  1. You send PowerVote a $$$ deposit to support the political candidate or PAC of your choice.
  2.  
  3. PowerVote agrees to send this money back to you sometime prior to the 1998 election. At least two years will be needed to build the fund up to its peak effectiveness. During this time, your deposit will be held in an escrow account.
  4.  
  5. PowerVote will keep a public tally of the value of deposits that PowerVote has on hand in support of your cause. So, if the tally shows $100,000 on deposit for your cause, then when the advocate for your cause is leaning on a Congressman, that Congressman knows that the lobbyist has the power of 100,000 PowerVote dollars behind her...far more power than your few dollars would have if you sent that money directly to that politician's campaign or PAC first.
  6.  
  7. Finally, your deposit will be returned to you in such a way that it will not offend the tax laws or the campaign financing laws. Mr. Todaro is a Certified Public Accountant, so he may have figured out a good and legal way to do this.

PowerVote believes that if people are so inclined to give to PowerVote, they may also be inclined to give the money they get back directly to the candidate and/or PAC of their choice. In this way, instead of changing the system's way of dealing with campaign financing, more citizens will become part of the system and give it further legitimacy.

This is at best a one bolt empowerment project. Its entire reason for being is to strengthen the present system of special interest organizations and money-backed political advertising.

Back to the list of projects

line break

previous section table of contents next section