How the 99% and the Tea Party can Occupy

The conventional wisdom is that the American people are too cynical, too jaded, and too burnt out on politics to ever engage with the actual governance of our country by getting involved in discussions of policy. I don’t believe that’s true; I think if it’s made engaging and accessible enough, ordinary citizens will directly engage in how policy is made, and improve its workings through their insights and expertise.

The evidence of the passion of ordinary citizens is ample; people have been taking this energy to the streets, for a few years in the form of Tea Party demonstrations, and more recently through the various Occupy movements that have branched off of #OccupyWallStreet.

But what about making substantive changes in actual regulations happen? Can we leap from posters and platitudes to policy changes? The answer is absolutely yes. And the reason is obvious: Networks powered by technology are having the same transformative effect on the hierarchical, slow institutions of government and public policy that they had on media, communications and information. This was the point of my post a few days ago on our Expert Labs blog:

[T]he White House announced a program to make it easier for Americans who have student loans to meet their monthly payments on those loans; Named “Pay As You Earn”, the program promises to offer 1.6 million Americans a bit of a financial respite on their loan service, and to put a few more dollars in their pockets every month.

But what was much less heralded in the story was exactly how this policy change came to be: An ordinary New Yorker had proposed some form of student loan amnesty on the White House’s “We the People” petition platform.

Because traditional media cycles understandably focus on the changes to the school loan policy, it’s been easy to overlook that the mechanism of that policy change is as interesting as its substance. In short, something remarkable happened here:

  1. A regular citizen, not a lobbyist or politician or CEO, made a suggestion of a smart idea on the White House’s petition website.

  2. That idea got promoted through social media, filtering its way out through Twitter and blogs and Facebook.

  3. One month later the administration endorsed a variation of the idea, making it actual policy and helping over a million and a half Americans to have more money in their pocket at the end of the month.

Some Don’t Want To Believe

Every time these milestones and successes are achieved, skeptics want to scoff. “Maybe this guy’s a plant!” “They’re only gonna accept ideas they already agree with.” “I bet most of the ideas are stupid.” “Why would they really listen to us?”

In this example, we see refutations of many of these objections. Judging by the phrasing (and the fact that no media circus has descended on him), the school loan forgiveness proposal seems to have been submitted by an honest, well-intentioned Staten Island man with no political portfolio. We certainly can’t expect that any administration is going to enact policies that go directly against its stated goals (c.f. “elections have consequences”) but looking at the other petitions that the White House has received reveals some heartening examples.

For every cockamamie “tell us about the space aliens!” petition or every obligatory “legalize it!” appeal, there are detailed, thoughtful, respectful responses. The White House can’t be delighted that those were among the first policy conversations to cross the threshold of earning a response from a policy maker, but there they are.

And this is the key thing: These conversations are visible.

I’m no pollyanna about the Magical Power of Transparency, but I know it has an important role to play in fixing the ways that government is broken. Systems that require policy makers to be accountable even on uncomfortable or inconvenient topics, simply due to the prominence of those conversations, can be very effective at raising the priority of those topics.

This is the power of the network. Not that the White House is going to say yes to every petition that pops up on the site. But that they have to say something about every petition that reaches critical mass. Sure, the cynics have their petitions too. I hope they succeed; If that pointless, spiteful petition earns a response, maybe a few of the people who have cynically endorsed it will have to confront the fact that they were asked for their biggest, most important ideas, and instead chose to invest their time in something that helps no one.

What’s Next

There’s still a lot of work to do here. The White House, in all reality, doesn’t have that much power. There’s two other pretty serious branches of government, one of which is often batshit insane and the other of which is fairly unaccountable to things like public opinion. Even within the executive branch, none of the other federal agencies have the public profile of the White House, and few have anywhere near the resources to engage in petitions and social media the way the innovators at the White House New Media team have. (As should be obvious, we’re hoping to help with that a bit at Expert Labs.)

But a few clear first steps show that there’s potential for something truly meaningful to change about the way we make policy more responsive to ordinary citizens.

Groups like #OccupyWallStreet and the Tea Party and the many other issue-focused organizations whose messages and memberships don’t map neatly to our major political parties have an opportunity to route around broken, corrupt systems by making their platforms visible on systems like We the People and the many others that will doubtless follow in its footsteps. Just as importantly, these can be models for independent versions of the same documents of accountability to community, to fill in the absences of similar systems to make state and local governments, and someday institutions like businesses or other organizations, accountable to citizens as well.

I have nothing against marching in the streets. I am inspired by, and admiring of, those who have the passion to do so. But I prefer a more modern version direct action to today’s general demonstrations. I hope those who are moved enough to march can be focused enough to build networks that sustain their ideals, extend beyond the boundaries of the communities they already belong to, and connect together unexpected or unanticipated allies in the name of making policy bend to the will of the people who these institutions currently find it too easy to overlook.