Posts by Steve Urquhart

The Revolution Will Be Wikified

January 22, 2007

Steve Urquhart

Wikis are hot. The success of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, which is one of the most popular destinations on the web, is inspiring all kinds of similar experiments in people-driven sites, including wikis devoted to politics. There's Congresspedia, which has detailed pages on every Member of Congress that goes much deeper than Wikipedia; and MorePerfect, a wiki devoted to policy development that is aimed at nurturing constructive consensus among different points of view. Today Steve Urquhart the Republican Rules Committee chair of the Utah House of Representatives, announces the launch of Politicopia, a new wiki focused on improving access to legislative information for his state. (While Urquhart is a Republican, one of the site's participants is Pete Ashdown, a prominent Democrat who recently ran for U.S. Senate.) Utah Politicopia joins a small but growing number of state and local wikis with a strong political bent, like Connecticut Local Politics' Connecticut Elections wiki, PA Wiki, Birmingham, Alabama's Bhamwiki, and Rochester, NY's RocWiki. As far as we know, this is the first time that an elected official has initiated a political wiki; a sea change in the relationship between representatives and voters is clearly underway.
-The Editors

Politicopia joins the revolution to improve people's ability to understand and control their government. Politicopia starts with three simple notions.

1. People need more control over government.

2. Insiders have too much control over government.

3. The Internet will disintermediate government.

In politics, intermediaries tightly control information. Those intermediaries are (1) special interest groups, (2) the media, and (3) bureaucrats. There's nothing wrong with the fact that those three entities exist; they can be quite helpful in proper dosage. The problem is the overwhelming degree to which those intermediaries filter content and control political dialogue.

People and elected officials struggle to get around the intermediaries filter. "Elected officials?" you ask.

Sure. Imagine an elected official who campaigns on really changing things for the better and, then, works hard to do it. What happens to that Mr. Smith? Likely, he'll get flattened. He'll give up, get thrown out, labor ineffectively on the fringes, or learn to get along.

To be "successful" in the present system, who must Mr. Smith learn to get along with? The intermediaries. Think about it. Who has tools at the ready to best unseat an incumbent? You or a powerful special interest group? You or the media? You or career insiders? Hint: it ain't you.

So, if an elected official wants to be re-elected, who does she pay more attention to -- you or those more powerful intermediaries? Again, it ain't you. For example, think about the dialogue on some of the difficult issues our nation faces (e.g., Iraq, illegal immigration, social security). How many nascent proposals to deal with those issues are smothered in the cradle by the media? Just about all of them. So, the status quo reigns.

The people must wrest control from the intermediaries. How? By (1) improving access to information and (2) improving the ability to organize.

Politicopia will improve people's access to information in my state, Utah, by presenting a wiki-based forum for the compilation and presentation of information on actual bills pending before the Legislature. If a citizen wants to learn about an issue and shape the dialogue, Politicopia will provide a quick and solid handle on the process -- without the intermediaries filter. And if a legislator wants to hear unfiltered suggestions from interested citizens -- instead of mainly hearing from organized special interests -- Politicopia will give him or her a new source of input.

Using a Socialtext wiki, Politicopia will list the bills, present a brief summary of the issue and the bills status, invite pro and con arguments and comments, and provide links to relevant sources. Users will provide and control the content. Adding a forum where commentary and links can be added to the great information already provided on the Legislative website, Politicopia should become a very useful source for quick, accurate information on issues that the peoples representatives are deciding in Utah. Please check it out and help supply content or start a site for your state, city or mosquito abatement district.

Okay, so once the people have conquered information, what do they do to affect the results? Well, for now they can use the phone, email, and whatever other organizational tools they can grab. But more is needed.

People need to be able to network with others in a broader application on that site and amplify their voices exponentially. Many wonderful experiments are being conducted on the Internet to build such a network. Politicopia is currently working with Britt Blaser's Open Resource Group to get such a platform in shape for Politicopia and other networking endeavors in the next few months. We can use your ideas.

So, Politicopia will be incomplete when it launches. But, that's kind of funny to think about, and it helps illustrate the need for better dialogue, since Politicopia might just be one of the most citizen-friendly sources of information on politics in my state from day one.

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