‘Crowdsourced Democracy’ – a social contract for Congress.

I spend most of my time immersed in Edtech but my other great passion is the potential of using technology and the power of the crowd to fix our broken democracy. A must read in this area is Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Republic, Lost’, as well as watching his TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/lawrence_lessig_we_the_people_and_the_republic_we_must_reclaim.html). Larry is a Harvard law professor and the founder of http://www.rootstrikers.org/, and is dedicated to ending the corrupting influence of money on our democracy. The tagline of his book is ‘How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It’, but when it comes to real solutions to this problem here is what Larry himself says: “The changes that would accomplish this are not hard to describe. How we effect them, however, is. The gap in the Framers’ original design is obvious enough. The types of reform that would fill that gap are obvious as well. But how one motivates a potilical response sufficient to fill it is incredibly difficult to imagine. I am not convinced it is possible, even though the next chapters map four different strategies we could try. I have my favorite among these four, but none are probable’ (‘Republic, Lost’ Part IV page 249).

This seems to be the prevailing feeling of both scholars and the American public in general. We have a plutocracy, not a democracy – and we feel powerless to change it. Politicans are bought and paid for by corporations and the moneyed elite and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why even vote? The framers of the constitution were very worried about this issue. They did their best to avoid concentrated power in our government, but what happens when the majority of the politicians we elect to represent our interests are trapped in a completely broken system that requires them to raise incredible amounts of money to even run for office (a form of indentured servitude to the people/companies giving them the money)? Whose interests are they representing? It’s an obvious problem and one that isn’t easy to fix, but the framers of our constiitution gave us the ultimate solution to this problem – the vote. The problem is that we aren’t voting because we feel powerless. We hear lots of excuses – the public isn’t educated, the public doesn’t care, the media/money controls all of the messaging, etc. I give more credit than that to the ‘uneducated masses’. The problem is not that we aren’t educated or that we don’t care, it’s that we haven’t had the ability to have our voices truly heard – until now.  We are living in an incredibly different time than ever before in human history – a time when technology has enabled us to hear people’s collective voices and effect real change. In my opinion the solution to the problems our democracy is facing is tapping into the collective wisdom and power of the crowd, which is what true democracy is all about. We can use crowdsourcing/crowdfunding to control who gets into office and to hold them accountable for what they do while they are in office. We can re-write the rules of politics on our terms – what we expect of our elected officials – and if they don’t comply we can throw them out. That is the ultimate power of the crowd. Isn’t crowdfunding/crowdsourcing at it’s core really about democritization – the power of the many instead of the few? It’s a simple, almost naive sounding proposition but I can’t think of any other way (outside of a revolution) to combat the billions of dollars that are currently spent buying, controlling, co-opting and corrupting our democracy. At the end of the day we still have the ultimate say. We put these people in office, not special interests. What we need is a framework for re-inventing and revolutionizing this process – for taking back our democracy. We need to give the Americal Public a reason to vote.

I am envisioning a ‘Contract for Congress’ – not a legal contract, but a crowdsourced social contract that details exactly what we expect from everyone running for Congress. They would sign on to it in order to be elected and be accountable for delivering on it while in office. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a simple report card that tracks their behavior and if they don’t deliver on their promises while running for office we don’t elect them. If they don’t deliver while in office then we throw them out. Politicians will never limit their own power, but we can. Hopefully we can harness the power of the crowd to re-invent and revitalize our democracy – to empower the American people to get involved in creating the country they want. The real question is what should this document/process look like? We can re-write the rules, but we need a clear vision of what we collectively want – important changes that the majority of the public agrees on. Should politicians have term limits? Should Congress live by the same rules as the American people? How do we accomplish meaningful campaign finance reform? Should there be restrictions on public servants when they leave office? This is the conversation I’m hoping to facilitate with the concept of ‘crowdsourced democracy’.

I had a front row seat to the complete re-invention of the music business thanks to technology. The lessons were simple – listen to your customers, empower your customers, utilize technology to better serve your customers, be open to re-thinking and re-inventing the economics of your business, put everything in one place and make it simple and easy to use. Steve Jobs accomplished this for music with Itunes. Jeff Bezos accomplished this for shopping with Amazon. Mark Zuckerberg accomplished this for connecting people with Facebook. Craig Newmark accomplished this for classifieds with craigslist. Sergey and Larry accomplished this for search with Google. Why not democracy? We simply need to collectively design the right framework for this process and get enough momentum behind it to make it work. The timing couldn’t be better. The problems are obvious, the tools are available, and the American people are begging for a solution. People all over the world are begging to be empowered. Isn’t that the ultimate use of technology – empowering people to make the world a better place?

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