By the People: Citizen Involvement the Open Source Way

Everything’s going open source nowadays. Why not government?

That’s precisely the question that some analysts and consultants are asking, along with citizens themselves.

President-Elect Barack Obama has begun to implement a bit of open source thinking with his Presidential Transition Project Web site, which allows citizens to send in comments, ideas and suggestions for public policy, as well as apply for jobs within the Obama administration. And others in and around government are likely to follow his lead in enacting what might be called “Legislation 2.0.”

Canada’s Experiment

David Eaves, an Ontario-based negotiation consultant, is one example of a new wave of theorists who think “open government” can mean much more than publicly available records. It can also mean opening up the process of legislation for citizen involvement.

Back in 2001, Eaves was part of a revolutionary new project, Canada25, which brought together young Canadians interested in having an impact on government. These citizen policy makers met for regional and national conferences, and they put together policy recommendations and reports.

“Though we never would have called it that at the time, we were an open source public policy project,” Eaves told LinuxInsider. “We were impacting how policy was being made. We were running an essentially open source think tank.”

Between 2001 and 2007, when it disbanded, Canada 25 tackled such issues as foreign policy, urban renewal, and civic engagement. At its peak, the project engaged 1,500 to 2,500 people, and Eaves thinks the group left a lasting mark on the public policy landscape.

“It definitely had an impact,” Eaves told LinuxInsider. “There was a community of people who wanted to be engaged, and this organization mopped them all up.”

The group wasn’t especially technological, emphasizing group meetings and conferences over chatrooms, and written reports over e-mail. But in Eaves’ view, that didn’t make it any less open source.

“I don’t think open source has to do primarily with technology,” Eaves told LinuxInsider. “They weren’t techie people, but they understood there was something going on with emergent networks.”

Opening up Government to Itself

Even before citizens get involved in open source governing, however, Eaves thinks it’s important to open up the process for legislators and public servants first.

“The problem is, we’re not even doing it within government,” Eaves told LinuxInsider. “If you want to empower citizens, you have to first empower the public servants.”

Eaves argues that using social networking models to connect public servants and legislators would be one way to make the act of governing itself more open source.

“If they can find each other they can create epistemic communities,” Eaves told LinuxInsider.

New Directions

Another simple way of opening up government is by posting proposed legislation and policies on the Web for citizens to view and debate.

“I think all legislation that any party proposes to enact should be posted on a Web site for public viewing,” Dave Pollard, author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work and of the How to Save the World blog told LinuxInsider. “This would allow for full public and media debate on exactly what would be passed into law so that people still have the chance to vote out the politicians who propose laws they can’t support before they are even voted on by legislators.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for instance, posted proposed broadband legislation on the sites OpenLeft.com and RedState.com for public comment and discussion, and other members of Congress have been trying similar experiments.

The Sunlight Foundation has also been active in supporting open source models for legislating, with efforts like the Open House Project and the Open Senate Project, which advocate for more transparency and citizen involvement in Congressional operations. John Wonderlich, program director for the Sunlight Foundation, argues that open source models for legislating are important for the future of democracy.

“It brings citizens closer to the power, to the process of creating good policy,” Wonderlich told LinuxInsider. “They can contribute to good policy and keep the policy makers honest. It’s citizens asking to be treated as equals.”

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