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Obama and the Reinvention of Democracy

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It's not just elections, but governing in America will never be the same. Consider an email I received recently, addressed to Don, from John -- that's John D. Podesta, Co-chair The Obama-Biden Transition Project. "Everyday, we meet with organizations that present ideas for the Transition and the incoming Obama-Biden Administration. In past transitions, meetings like this have been held behind closed doors. Not anymore. Today, every Obama-Biden Transition staff member received a memo outlining the 'Seat at the Table' Transparency Policy."

Up until now, the game of politics was played this way: You, the citizen, listen to speeches, debates, and television ads. You give money. You vote. But when it's time to govern, you are supposed to sit quietly while the real powers -- the politicians, their financial supporters, and the lobbyists -- make all the decisions in back rooms, often according to their own interests.

But citizens are beginning to want more. Especially the young people who have grown up digital -- the same kids who helped give President-elect Barack Obama his mandate -- they won't settle for the old rules, and Obama knows it.

He's mobilizing the millions of young people who supported his presidential campaign to help him as he prepares to govern a troubled country. It's an audacious move to change the act of governing, and he's taking a massive risk. If circumstances force Obama to renege on his promises, get ready for some spectacular clashes.

This appeal from Mr. Podesta was mailed not only to me but to to millions of Americans on Obama's email list. "The policy is pretty simple: the people and groups we're meeting with, the subjects of the meetings, and any documents shared in the meetings will now be made available on Change.gov. Most importantly, the American public can weigh in with comments or their own materials." Hey, he wants me on the transition team!

Or take another recent email to me from David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "The inauguration is just 62 days away, and as President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden prepare to take office, they'll need your support more than ever," the email read. "You've built an organization in your community and across the country that will continue to work for change -- whether it's by building grassroots support for legislation, backing state and local candidates, or sharing organizing techniques to effect change in your neighborhood. Your hard work built this movement. Now it's up to you to decide how we move forward."

We were all asked to fill out an online survey asking for our online and land co-ordinates, our political leanings, our experiences on the Obama campaign, and our interest in volunteering in the near future -- and how.

This will make sense especially for the generation I call the Net Geners -- young Americans under 30 who have grown up digital and have jumped into politics in the excitement of the Obama campaign.

Their digital upbringing conditions them to expect a two-way conversation, not a lecture. They expect to collaborate with politicians -- not just to listen to their grandstanding speeches. They want to be involved directly: to interact with them, contribute ideas, scrutinize their actions, work to catalyze initiatives not just during elections but as they govern. And they will insist on integrity from politicians-- they will know very quickly if a politician says one thing and does another.

During the campaign they heard Obama promise to change the "you vote and we govern" style of leadership. He vowed, for instance, to shine a light on lobbying, to hold digital town hall meetings, and to give citizens five days to review legislation before he signs it.

Now they're set to shake up both politics and government. They're not calling for some kind of direct democracy -- where citizens can vote every night on the evening news or Web sites. That would be tantamount to a digital mob. Rather, they want to offer the new president insight and wisdom that he may not be able to find inside Washington. This may address a glaring defect in our political system -- the lack of a mechanism enabling government to benefit on an ongoing basis from the knowledge that a nation can collectively offer. The Net Generation's collaborative and interactive way of doing things -- a model they deployed so effectively in Obama's primary campaign -- may offer the answer.

They've already set up sites to make government more transparent. Sites such as PoliticalBase.com and OpenCongress.org provide a platform for citizens wanting to track their representatives. "We want to make it much easier for people to understand the web of political connections -- not only who did John Kerry vote for, but who contributed to his campaign, and what were his stances on various issues," says PoliticalBase cofounder Mike Tatum. Meanwhile, groups like Sunlight Labs and IBM's alphaWorks are taking advantage of new visualization technologies to help non-experts access and understand publicly available data that highlights government spending, political contributions, and the possible connections between the two.

These hyper-connected activists will want to participate in government after the election, but if they are disappointed, watch out: They have the means to make their views known in new and effective ways. They have great expectations for Obama, especially since he has promised greater transparency in government. Obama may find he has a tiger by the tail.

Don Tapscott recently led a survey of 11,000 young people around the world. He has written 12 widely read books on the impact of the Internet on society. His 1996 book Growing Up Digital defined the Net Generation and the sequel, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, was launched in the UK on Tuesday.

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