After a tense weekend of posturing, cajoling and high-flown partisan oratory from the men and women entrusted with running the nation, it looks like we finally have an agreement to stave off a default of the United States government. And, yet, it felt like a dream – a piece of political theater rather than a meaningful attempt to come to a decision with real political and economic implications.
The worst of it is: It didn’t have to be this way.
Just this weekend, while our elected representatives were putting on a show in Washington, something very different was happening in New York City. As part of its Reinvent NYC.Gov initiative, the city hosted a first-of-its-kind community “hackathon” event for designers, engineers, product managers and copywriters to reinvent New York City’s web presence. The event, which took place in the heart of the city’s “Silicon Alley,” was billed as an example of civic participation meeting the digital age. New York City is engaging its citizens to create a more participatory democracy in other ways, too, such as by appointing Rachel Sterne as New York City’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer.
Meanwhile, consider what happened in Iceland last week, where citizens actually “crowdsourced” a new draft constitution for the nation. People were asked to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other digital media to change the future of the country. The final results will be presented to the nation’s leaders on October 1. Everyday citizens, armed with nothing more than Internet connections and a sense of can-do civic activism, weighed in on everything from human rights to the environment to net neutrality. The latest Icelandic constitutional draft can now be viewed online
I acknowledge that making a comparison between America and Iceland might not be the best example in terms of fiscal policy, since Iceland is struggling with the same issues that we are now: insurmountable debt loads, the loss of public confidence in government, and the unsettling realization that global peers now view the nation with circumspection. However, Iceland, like New York City, invited its citizens to change what they don’t like about government, empowering them to make a meaningful impact on the nation’s democratic institutions.
Asking citizens to send out last-minute tweets and e-mails about the debt crisis may have added some political drama to this weekend’s debate in Washington, and The White House, obviously, argues those efforts were quite effective in pushing lawmakers to reach a compromise. But how effective were those tweets in terms of changing the way Washington does the people’s business? More robust digital participation is needed — not just tweets and phone calls. This level of involvement requires everyone to realize the Internet, when used in innovative ways, has the ability to fundamentally transform our notions of what it means to be a democratic nation in the digital age.
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