A modest proposal for real participatory government

I propose that all Gov 2.0 people consider the following pilot program:

Imagine an online community of all registered U.S. voters. The community would be distributed across county clerk offices. There are about 150 million registered voters, and about 3,100 U.S. counties.

Such a national community can be easily piloted: Establish pilot communities in six selected counties today. Operate those communities for two years. They sink or swim. Either outcome provides valuable data.

Six county-based communities can be launched, staffed and operated for two years for less than $4 million. They will attract considerable media attention, as well as attention from leading technologists and cultural innovators. They will produce their own leaders and their own agendas. They will go in whatever direction they go. Six county-based versions of communities just like this one, pointing the way to a new model of online participatory government.

If the pilot is successful–if the communities demonstrate the ability to effect change in the real world–the program can be rolled out nationally in 2012. If the pilot fails, we’ll have learned a valuable lesson about our readiness for modern self-government.

You’re the Gov 2.0 community. What say ye?

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Arvind Nigam

Excellent idea Patrick. However, consider this: Six different counties can have different outcomes each. Unless they are at par with each other at social level, it is quite remote that one would have equal success or even rate of success everywhere.

And then at the end of two year what would our decision be?


Patrick Quinn

hey Srinidhi–

I had an idea this might attract yr attention. 😉

The $4M covers build, launch, operation and maintenance of six large-ish online communities using off-the-shelf technology available right now. We could do this tomorrow, if we wanted to. I cheerfully concede it’s a soft number, but if anything it will go down, not up.

I included a fat margin to account for various community sizes. The six pilot counties must be carefully selected: high bandwidth, vibrant civic culture, various degrees of online socialization and various population sizes. Douglas County, Kansas–where I live–would be a superb pilot site; it’s home to the University of Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University and the World Company. Another pilot county should be really big–Cook County, Illinois, for example, or San Diego County, California, or Dade County, Florida. Building the databases for large counties would raise the price of those communities.

Each community should have two community managers–they obviously have to be paid, phaps by a public-private partnership operated by a quasi-official commission. (This isn’t much different than managing the franchise in the elections world.)

The bandwidth has to be paid for as well. But if you give me four beans,Adriel Hampton’s contact list and an iPhone, we can get these puppies up and running before the end of summer.

Patrick Quinn


Agreed. Absolutely true. In fact, the counties should be selected w/ the aim of producing a variety of outcomes. This is a pilot, intended to gather data, and we’re as interested in the failures as in the successes.

I don’t seriously think the results would prompt a sane person to roll out a national community of registered voters in 2012–although they might. Instead, we’ll likely see a continuum of outcomes–some positive, some negative, some head-scratchers. I’m nearly certain, however, that the results would be sufficiently encouraging to prompt high-bandwidth, well-educated counties to look seriously at launching their own communities. And that’s all we need. Once the snowball starts to roll down the mountain, we can safely leave the outcome to gravity.

Srinidhi Boray

On ning.com the online communities can be created and managed on fraction cost, or probably Arvind can lend his infrastructure for bubbling.

Each counties will have different outcomes, since the demography, its constitution, agriculture etc etc will be different.

Patrick Quinn

I hear you, buddy, but we’re talking about building a civic space that must be insulated from the vagaries of the marketplace. A proprietary community seems to me essential for the pilot project, especially for the Cook Counties and Dade Counties, where the infrastructure would be facing GovLoop-like traffic from the first week.

$4M is peanuts. It’s not even walking-around money in the tech world. Money won’t be the reason this doesn’t happen.

Srinidhi Boray

Idea overall is good – just check just yesterday released news from SBA below –

Economic developers in regions across the United States often want to
support entrepreneurial activity, but find it difficult both to develop suitable
prescriptions and to put them into practice. Analysis of case studies has
identified a promising pattern of economic clusters. Creating or supporting
economic clusters is a possible means of supporting entrepreneurship. The
study finds that entrepreneurial activity often concentrates geographically.
The level of entrepreneurial activity in one county seems to reinforce the level
in nearby counties. Aligning the development goals and activities of a group of
neighboring counties may be a necessary condition for encouraging
entrepreneurial activity in any given county.

A copy of the report is located at:

and the research summary
can be found at:


Srinidhi Boray

Hey Patrick – With a good model like this Walmart can be put out of business by making local communities thrive.

Patrick Quinn

I hesitate to make predictions about outcomes, other than that they will occur.

The real question is that of civic engagement. There exists a powerful belief in government–particularly in the Gov 2.0 world–that citizens are sheep that require feeding. They might be right, but at the moment they have nothing to support that proposition but the immediate absence of evidence to the contrary–and of course everyone knows that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

Srinidhi Boray

Christianity happened because of the grass-root, the real workers and unfortunately enslaved, then Rome has to change and adapt abolishing the slavery.

Best things happen bottom-up

The distortion unfortunately true that 2 and something million pay equivalent tax of 135 Millions needs to change rather quickly.

Arvind Nigam

Wow! This is some discussion 🙂 I have an opinion to share: Internet is all about dissolving boundaries (state-boundaries, national boundaries, geographic boundaries and so on). By mixing all the entities together, internet increases the disorderliness of the universe (in other words it increases homogeneity in distribution of talent).

In such a paradigm creating silos of counties, local loops which do not rely on the same platform (standards) is actually about “defying” second law of thermodynamics. So in a way, it may not be appropriate to test 6-7 pilots together. It’s better to test just one pilot, and like Srinidhi said it must come bottom up!


Srinidhi Boray

No there is a different view, when world becomes flat, it does not mean pluralism goes away, furthermore it become inclusive, while retaining heterogeneity. In lack of which the individualism of each county will not arise. This is a poly-cetric model that allows for syndication to happen.

This is like the panchayat raj on steroids. In fact studying various mechanism of “syndication” the fundamental architecture principle that web 2.0 enables, I realize similar such thing can be realized in the socio-economic model as-well that allows for poly-centricity. In fact the news writers, journalists and such worked on syndicating their contribution their bits of content..




Srinidhi Boray

India s a perfect example – until now it has not become homogenous, it still retains 100s of languages and dialects and and religions, the maddening mix of diversity.

Arvind Nigam

Oh! I liked that “panchayat raj on steroids” line. lol … Kudos @Srinidhi. With homogeneity I meant the ideal sense in that “every single human on internet” is also available on Facebook (homogeneous use of collaboration technology) but is a part of different community, different social circle, community, dialect everything. Sorry its my bad that I did not communicate this well earlier.

See India is not really a perfect example to follow when it comes to technology (internet 2.0/gov 2.0) and its effects. I mean you might be correct in the long term scenario when internet has truly penetrated in India. Just to give you some figures, see between “Modern India” & western world there is a basic level difference. The modern India represents the mass that uses the internet today and is only 0.05% of the total Indian population (Google on latest world bank data regarding internet penetration & population) whereas for America the online populace represents close to 85-86% of total population and hence better communication & homogeneity.

Having covered internet technology for India, Pakistan, South East Asia, and Korea for a last couple of years, I understand this part of the world quite well. At micro level there are many substantial social differences between these markets and those of the west. And bringing the two on same platform would be like comparing apples with oranges.

See I wrote this piece on Asia: http://www.pluggd.in/asia-is-like-new-zealand-of-internet-evaluation-297/ which talks about difference of evolution of Internet according to local dialects & exotic cultures of various countries.

Srinidhi Boray

Dont confuse the homogeneity that exists in the mechanistic technology is also the same in the social structures. Removing the barriers of intermediaries, does not make anything homogeneous. It is much abused term. In poly-centric schemes, inherently secularity is maintained. If this assumption is not correct, then I hazard that the dangerous attribution is typecast, stereotypes etc.

Rachel Happe

This is a great vision and I think it would be a step forward in engaging people in a person to person dialog. Despite some of the partisanship of late, I still believe in the U.S. we have more commonalities than differences in what we want from our society/government.

However, this is a huge challenge because there are 1) so many people 2) so many issues all at different levels of government 3) a lot of apathy 4) a lack of civic responsibility

If this is to succeed, it would need to engage the vast majority of people who don’t speak out because of the droning voices of people on either end of the spectrum, who would also want to take over these communities. You would not get rid of intermediaries, and they would likely learn how to manipulate the community environment faster than members themselves. Things to consider:

1 Strategy – what community mission would actually get people engaged on a regular basis? They won’t just come. What is in it for them?
2 Community management – who would be the neutral arbiters who will suppress the extremists enough that the majority of members feel comfortable participating.
3 Programming – two aspects of programming. The first teaching people how to speak to each other respectfully (civics) and secondly topic based programming that hits all the areas of local, state, and national gov.
4. Measurement – what is success here? What’s the purpose? How will the outcomes be reviewed?

The question – do you figure out the answers to the above first (which would take a lot of time/effort) or do you just start off down the path (may fall flat on its face… they don’t come just because you build it or it gets overrun with people who have their own agendas). Don’t know the answer to those questions. Like the vision but there is a lot of complexities to think about.

Patrick Quinn

All true, Rachel. But I don’t see a deal-breaker on the list.

The huge part–well, let’s see what happens w/ the pilot before we decide the job is too big. I personally think it’s manageable, and anyway it’s going to happen on its own soon enough.

I don’t think we need to engage the vast majority of people–I think we just need to engage more than are engaged now. And while it’s true that we’d see a wave of manipulation… well, aren’t we seeing a wave of manipulation now? At least in the civic space such manipulation can be quickly and effectively publicized. I don’t think we should ever suppress anyone–let ’em sling whatever snake-oil they want. If we, as a people, are stupid enough to go over the cliff following a snake-oil salesman, well, that’s prolly going to happen sooner or later anyway, so let’s find out one way or the other.

It all comes down to content. The appropriate launch programming is vital, but we can figure out the answer, right? Aren’t we the leaders? If not us, who? If not now, when?

This will all happen on its own soon enough–maybe too soon. It’s a more disruptive transition if we just sit back and watch.

I’m delighted you find the proposal interesting. If nothing else, let’s start the conversation, no?

Srinidhi Boray

@ Rachel – to what you propose, so awesome, an “enterprise architecture” driven mechanism already exists supported by Legislations that can be adopted quickly for the model proposed by Patrick. In fact few weeks back I was looking at state CIOs and how do they make available plans for their spend on various programs. No documents available, then transparency and accountability all is vapour-ware.

“1 Strategy – what community mission would actually get people engaged on a regular basis? They won’t just come. What is in it for them?
2 Community management – who would be the neutral arbiters who will suppress the extremists enough that the majority of members feel comfortable participating.
3 Programming – two aspects of programming. The first teaching people how to speak to each other respectfully (civics) and secondly topic based programming that hits all the areas of local, state, and national gov.
4. Measurement – what is success here? What’s the purpose? How will the outcomes be reviewed?”

Paul Peters

Maybe look at a variation.. where the government, national, or local, provides a collaborative/cooperative platform to enable easy formation of “virtual enterprises” as in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_enterprise
To look at where a lot of the European Union’s stimulus budget is going, let’s look at one of Italy’s top tech companies and the R&D projects they are participating in on http://www.txtgroup.com/int/solutions/corporate-research/ongoing_projects.shtml
Most of the initiatives are about collaboration, networks, or service bazaars, but due to the way the EU’s budget allocation works (and how this is often a simple freebie for companies) much of this is too fragmentory or too top-down to become a success.
Maybe something for the US to set up a general purpose virtual marketplace so that small companies can trade and group together as if they’re larger.. There is already a nice standard for a contract-based e-business exchange model http://www.infoq.com/news/2010/04/SOA_EERP

Srinidhi Boray

Paul, At this time Peter has proposed model for people’s participation with the Government to ensure more direct results. As the local economics is also a part, I threw in the SBA statistics for the local market to gain better understanding of the local county level dynamics.

Patrick Quinn

I’m delighted by the comments, really truly. I just wanna hook everyone up and see what happens.

Because everyone is hooking up anyway–so there will be an outcome for government no matter what, no? So let’s see if maybe we can be sensible about it.