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President 3.0


An Open Letter to Newsweek, Google, and others
envisioning a new era of citizen engagement in government

ref: "President 2.0" in Newsweek Dec 1, 2008

Many people are waking up to how digital technology is generating new possibilities for citizen engagement in governance. And some also recognize the additional potential offered by our rapidly developing "social technologies" -- new ways for citizens to come together face-to-face for conversation and action.

While the Internet does make mass citizen participation possible, its ability to generate COLLECTIVELY INTELLIGENT citizen guidance for policy-makers is limited. Generating true public policy wisdom requires high-quality, informed face-to-face dialogue and deliberation -- diverse citizens creatively exploring, comparing and weighing options together towards a coherent decision about a public issue.

But how do we get deliberative coherence from a population of millions? The revolutionary answer is... the same way we do with juries and public opinion polls: convene a randomly selected microcosm of the whole country: a small group -- a dozen to several hundred people -- whose members approximate the actual diversity of our nation. (This approach can also work at state and local levels, but the focus here is the whole nation.)

President Obama could convene tried-and-true, jury-style citizen deliberative councils like (1) British Columbia's remarkable 2004 Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform, (2) the official Consensus Conferences used by Denmark's Parliament to evaluate new technologies, or (3) the internationally popular Citizens Juries created by the United States' own Jefferson Center. These randomly selected microcosm groups get balanced briefings about the issue they're considering. They take testimony from -- and cross-examine -- diverse expert witnesses. Then they deliberate to make recommendations they publicly announce to policy-makers, media and the citizenry.

These leading-edge "policy juries" could be used to generate collectively intelligent recommendations on any issue, grounded in the knowledge of diverse experts and the values and experience of diverse citizens. President Obama could go three innovative steps further and (a) provide a public record of their briefings, hearings, and deliberations, available online; (b) have them do web research as part of their deliberative agendas and (c) submit their findings to online public forums and on-the-ground community gatherings across the country, where they can be debated and compared with other policy proposals. This would engage the whole nation with the best efforts of these potent citizen deliberative councils.

By stepping out of partisan politics into a "politics of the whole" in this powerful way -- by taking the unifying spirit of his campaign to the next level -- President Obama would in effect be creating a "President 3.0". Rather than simply using the Internet to further individual expression and interest-group activism -- the usual political uses of Web 2.0 -- he would actually be developing the public wisdom and collective intelligence capacity of our whole country.

But he and we will need to keep in mind an important dynamic: When Google CEO Eric Schmidt says, "A community will always make a better decision than an individual," he is unfortunately overlooking the proven -- and widely recognized -- phenomenon of "groupthink". The truth is that there are conditions where collective activity generates collective intelligence and others in which such activity generates collective stupidity. Much knowledge exists about the different conditions that predictably lead us into one state or the other. We need to get smart about using that knowledge.

So how would all this come about? Clearly, President Obama could spearhead this revolution in our politics and governance. But if the President doesn't want to innovate Governance 3.0, Google or any of dozens of other thoughtful, well-resourced groups and individuals or emerging grassroots networks could do it. There's nothing stopping us but our own bias towards partisanship. It's time -- high time -- we got over that. There's a sane, healthy future just waiting for us to gather our collective wits into collective wisdom, using our diversity creatively.

During his campaign, Obama opened the door to that future. Citizen deliberative councils offer a very powerful way for all of us to walk through it together.

Tom Atlee
The Co-Intelligence Institute


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