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Voting for Democracy: The Obama Vision of Open Government and Public Engagement

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Lost in our understandable preoccupation with a host of immediate crises might be the fact that the Obama platform holds out the promise of an unprecedented revitalization of American democracy. If you're inclined to take Senator Obama's advice and vote hopes rather than fears, you ought to go to his platform on "Technology," scroll down to the section called, "Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy," and then download his position paper on technology and innovation.

The stakes here are hard to overstate. Americans have within their grasp a host of communication tools that could sustain a robust democratic culture of sharing, creativity and participation. It is so easy now to feel powerless, cynical, alienated from government, and distrustful of all public institutions. Senator Obama, however, is promising to lead a transformation in our political life. Imagine how people's attitudes would change if citizens felt they could actually insist upon and then see results from the government's embrace of fact-based solutions to the critical problems that individual citizens cannot conquer entirely on their own.

Such a transformation can pervade our economic and social life, with enormous impacts on our productivity, competitiveness, and individual and collective problem-solving. Widespread collaborative interaction with new tools and resources for information and deliberation can spread throughout both the public and private sectors, as people's expectations expand for what they can accomplish both for themselves and their fellow citizens. A new culture of democratic action holds forth the prospect of not only engaging people in activities with concrete, tangible payoffs for personal success and community empowerment, but also proliferating values of tolerance, respect, and mutual engagement that have been the themes not only of the Obama campaign, but of Barack Obama's entire public life.

The Obama platform is something of a "Top Ten" list when it comes to proposals for federal leadership in revitalizing democracy through technology. He would "make government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities." He would establish pilot programs to open up government decision-making to meaningful public input. He would require heads executive departments and agencies to conduct significant public business in public and in venues that can be watched online.

Obama promises to employ current information technology to permit citizens to participate in public meetings from a distance. He promises "a web site, a search engine, and other web tools that enable citizens easily to track online federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts with government officials." He would solicit public comment on the final drafts of all non-emergency legislation before he signs it into law.

A President Obama would require cabinet officers to have national "town hall meetings" online. He would improve government decision-making through Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs and wikis. He would recommit the federal government to providing access to public records. He will pursue both universal broadband and open networks to give every person in America genuine access to the tools of 21st Century democratic participation.

If you're a "fear" voter, then the only two words you need to remember on Election Day, are "Supreme Court." But if you're allowing yourself the audacity of hope, remember Alexander Hamilton's words: "It has frequently been remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government by reflection and choice." Senator Obama apparently believes in an affirmative answer to that question and has promised to do whatever the federal government can do to empower American citizens to make that vision a reality.