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Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss? – Gatekeepers in Gov 2.0

For as long as elected officials have had one set of ears to listen to thousands if not millions of constituents and interests, there have been gatekeepers – the legislative staffs and lobbyists.

One of the goals we can gather from Government 2.0, e-Democracy – or ‘just the way things are these days’ as I like to think of it – is to use technology to break down the barriers for the average citizen to communicate with their elected representatives with greater transparency, without the rose-tinted spin or dark-tinted windows that shadow agendas and decision making.

What have any of these grassroots, technological innovations in politics done to minimize the roles of the gatekeepers then, the very people who remain agenda-blurring barriers to open communication?

Nothing really, if not increased them in the walls of a barrier by a different name.

In order to gain the buy-in of constituencies and legitimacy in the eyes of decision makers, and therefore true influence, any participants in government innovation will have to start at the root of the tree and develop a code of ethics, a brand, a standard for their own gatekeepers that can be held up to scrutiny, and hold the public trust to a greater degree than our current gatekeepers already have – and we won’t get there without first taking an honest look.

An example of this effect gone awry occurred back when I was a Congressional staffer after the 2006 elections. We were the young, idyllic staff of a Freshman Representative – they were a constituency with hopes buoyed by grassroots empowerment, ready to change the state, change the country, and eventually, change the entire status quo in American politics – all of which they, you, we did.

One unnamed grassroots organization that found itself empowered in the process became political celebrity, “working to make effective citizen participation by building electronic advocacy groups.”

It sounds pretty good, very 2.0 if you please. A day came, however, when from the moment we opened the office to the minute we closed, our phone lines were jammed by hundreds if not a thousand callers, passionate, motivated, empowered callers who had received the call-to-action from this e-Democracy organization to contact their Representative and demand that they change their minds and support a particular piece of legislation on the war in Iraq.

And as we had to devote most staff on hand – mostly interns, a popular gatekeeper – to fielding these calls from empowered, informed citizen participants, it took some time and reckoning to explain hundreds of times over that not only did we support the legislation, but that the Representative was even a Co-Sponsor of the bill.

The grassroots, Government 2.0 gatekeeper with the same role but a different name had gotten it wrong, sent out bad information to the constituents, and effectively brought productivity to a halt in an office that was furthering what should have been their cause – instead using the grassroots power as stray bullets.

And the mistake was not admitted to their members.

Credibility in the eyes of decision makers? Effectiveness in opening lines of communication between voters and elected officials without the spin of traditional politics? Despite the good intentions, let’s just say they’re lucky a bedrock of their “family of organizations that bring real Americans back into the political process” is traditional fundraising/lobby dollars.

The problem is that, like many Government 2.0 initiatives, we’re developing new ways of doing things but not asking ourselves if more information broadcast faster equates to better effectiveness and quality in our communications. The gatekeepers still exist, whether they are in a technology lab crunching data, in a grassroots advocacy roundtable ’speaking on behalf of the people,’ whether they’re sitting at their intern desk looking in abject horror at a phone that’s been blinking like a Christmas tree for 8 hours – or, until any of these questions are adressed frankly without agenda – the lobbyist who actually does their research and delivers what is needed.

We must look at what we are trying to communicate, who we’re trying to influence – or be influenced by with more transparent information – and answer first the question of how best to utilize that inevitable gatekeeper before we place an 6-cylinder engine in a circus bumper car.

In my last post, I posed an idea for discussion about applying the dynamic analysis of Electronic Health Records to the compiling of information from constituents, presentable in a format that would most be useful for elected officials in their decision making process.

Right now, however, that model would not work.

Right now there exists no gatekeeper role that could be seen as so removed from agenda that it could both be seen as a good-faith instrument by both the elected official and the constituent, and that would go for a government-backed initiative as well as a private one.

Until this question is explored, the politics of tomorrow are the politics of today no matter what number you place at the end of it because no one person can hear thousands if not millions of wishes except for Santa and my bartender.

In the meantime I’m thinking like Hell on the subject, and if you are too please share your thoughts.

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Bill Harshaw

There must be similar concerns when agencies do rulemaking. It’s fine to streamline the process, as they tried to do with regulations.gov, but at some point it’s sort of useless, particularly if the group has their members use canned language.

Robert Dene

There should be ways discussed as to approach those gatekeepers. What are their motives for keeping things opaque or allowing access….?…