On Friday, Google, the Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies brought together a small group of practitioners, funders and academics to talk and think about the technological lessons from the 2012 cycle and how they can be applied to civic engagement as a whole. I am so grateful to the attendees for their willingness to participate honestly and openly in thoughtful reasoned debate.
Joining us were Democrats and Republicans, journalists and academics, but one of the most interesting ways the attendees divided was between civic technologists and campaign practitioners. Attendees from the civic space worried about the effect campaign technology has on civic engagement, and at times seemed openly hostile to the methods campaigns have developed to win elections.
However, as pointed out late in the day, campaigns are not tasked with increasing civic engagement— they are tasked with winning. Campaign operatives have an ethical duty to a candidate and must invest resources to win the race. It would be wrong for them to focus resources anywhere other than on winning an advantage over the opponent.
I do not share my colleagues worries about the impact political technology is having on participatory dialogue. I worry instead that structural and resource problems will prevent government from leveraging new technologies as effectively as campaigns have done. But mostly, I worry that the civic tech space is so wary of political technology that the smartest analysts, strategists, organizers and technologists are being left out of the conversation. If we are going to build a robust, healthy civic discourse, we need to include these folks in building a solution.
Instead of criticizing political practitioners for failing to achieve full civic engagement, I would like to see the practitioner community engaged around the larger questions. If Dan Wagner (the Director of Analytics for the Obama campaign) took his next job not at a campaign, but instead at an organization working with Alex Lundry (the Director of Data Science at Romney for President) to build consensus around a policy agenda supported by a large majority of the country, how would they use their skills in data science in support of that objective? Could you use analytics to bring people together around policy instead of dividing them into the small number of persuadable voters and communicating only with those voters?
How about asking Betsy Hoover and Mat Lira to work together to build communities that tolerate compromise and technology tools that encourage Americans to weigh in on civic discussions but preserve space for our elected representatives to deliberate and explore issues honestly?
The political community is full of talented, smart, knowledgeable individuals who care not only about winning campaigns, but also about the common good. Let’s welcome them to the civic engagement space as full partners.