Citizen Participation and Google: I’m Feeling Lucky

Over at GonePublic, my fellow Masonite Noelle McAfee has a post on the White House’s new Office of Citizen Participation, directed by ex-Google product manager Katie Jacobs Stanton

After a quick moment of congratulation, Dr. McAfee moves on to the critical reflections:

Who is engaging whom? how? for what?

At present, there’s little information about what the new office will do, though there are reasons for caution: ‘citizen participation’ is subordinate to the White House’s ‘communications’ office, and so this is, at least in part, about crafting and delivering the White House’s message. They’ll talk, and they’ll organize the distribution of their arguments, but how much will they listen? 

Here, the choice of a Google employee is a little disheartening. Google makes great products, there is no doubt, and their core business of crafting information technologies that supply the desired website quickly and efficiently is a great start on open and transparent government. The internet, like the federal government, is a firehose of news and data: different citizens need very different streams of that data, and we would all benefit by having some way to slow the flow to that exact trickle that will supply us the needed answer instead of a torrent of irrelevance.

However, just try to find a ‘contact’ form anywhere in the *.Google family of sites. This is a company that thinks in terms of aggregating and manipulating eyeballs and pageviews: it’s not the most interlocutionary of corporations. If a product designer at Google wants to know how a new feature will be received, they bring some folks in to a lab and hook them up to machines that test their eye-movements and response times to various things on the screen. If there’s a problem, they find out about it through their electronic ‘customer experience’ data miners, which analyze usage patterns and look for statistically significant anomolies. Unfortunately, that’s the model of institutional design that Katie Jacobs Stanton is being hired to replicate in the Executive Branch.

The Google corporate philosophy actually de-emphasizes customer feedback and responsiveness, becuase they’ve rightly reasoned that customer service and traditional ‘Help Desk’ phone lines are an enormous waste of money for a company that gives almost all of its serices away for free. Avoiding direct interaction with their customers saves Google millions of dollars a year, but that’s not an efficiency that we ought to seek in a deliberative democracy. Reason-giving and reason-responsiveness are what distinguish a democracy from a tyranny. I know the personal e-mail addresses of a few Google employees, so I might be able to get a question answered if I really tried, but ultimately that’s on the basis of my personal social network, not an institutional design that values accountability. 

 Just look at the way the White House will be delivering on that PublicMarkup feature I requested

One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

This is legislation already voted on by Congress, not bills before the House or Senate, so we’ll be reviewing and commenting on an already-heavily-deliberated piece of legislation for which there is no turning back. At that point, President Obama can either sign it or veto it, he can’t remove particular provisions or renegotiate the language. It’s far too late in the process to be soliciting comment from the public, unless the real goal isn’t to tap the wisdom of crowds but rather to use new media distribution techniques for getting the President’s message to his constituents. 

Dr. McAfee rightly cautions us that we ought not to depend on the White House, or any branch of government, to do our participation for us:

We the public, though, shouldn’t look to the White House to organize us. That’s our job. There is no substitute for self-organizing, certainly not if it is to be democratic.

That sounds right to me, and precisely because that’s true, a White House Office of Citizen Participation won’t undermine or destroy true self-organizing. Turf grass (propaganda masquerading as populism) can’t flourish when the real grassroots are operating effectively, and the election has shown that there’s a tremendous energy and willingness to get involved and use technology to communicate horizontally rather than vertically, to interact with each other for organically-evolving ends rather than merely to steer the regulative apparatus of the state. That’s real power, and there’s more of that self-organizing juice flowing in the US than there has been for several decades. So yes, I am feeling lucky.

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