Virtual political districts for participatory government

Via Matt Cooperrider:

This new paper examines the potential for a social network platform that empowers citizens to manage government. It is authored by Britt Blaser, David Weinberger, and Joe Trippi, for submission to the Digital Governance Society of North America 2009 conference.

What the paper doesn’t tell you is that this platform is almost built (the code name is OrgWare). There is a very un-beautiful and still-buggy installation at

Matt invites feedback on the paper. I agree with Matt and co-author Britt Blaser, after having seen a beta version of the system, that this could be a killer application for public participation in policy making. It’s one of the most serious and ambitious p2p-oriented platforms I have seen in a long while.

Here are the abstract and introduction.

For feedback, also consider adding it to our Ning community Forum discussion: here.


“North Americans possess a “participatory surplus” that fuels open source software and presidential campaigns, energizing millions. Well-understood social networking services could provide a for the constituents of any politician and to the stakeholders of any government agency or service. How might campaign web site experts design and host a network to govern governance?

In such a system, the “governed” would have to feel that they are having an effect. Politicians and government employees, “surrounded” online by fully empowered and well informed constituencies, would be motivated by self-interest to listen carefully to specific policy formulations carrying the force of voters’ money and votes. Online, a plurality of anonymous but authenticated voters can pledge future votes and donations contingent on government behaviors. When issues-based commitments to votes and donations are aggregated, published and audited, politicians are likely to behave as if the entire government were online, a stepping-stone to digitizing government itself.

A virtual congressional district is the epitome of politician advice and consent, guiding a representative’s policies as effectively as an airplane’s “trim tab” governs its unwieldy rudder. Proponents of Digital Government could use Virtual Districts to erode the resistance keeping the US on paper.

Such a system must recognize the real world motivations and mechanisms pulling the levers of government. Politicians are moved not simply by pure argument or the honest expression of their constituents’ preferences. They are ruled by career interests. Above all: Governance is regional. A social network for governance will very likely have to reflect the way in which geography binds constituents.”


“The most recent U.S. presidential campaign proved Clay Shirky right in “Political Collaborative Production” , written for “Rebooting America” , a collection of essays compiled in June, 2008 for the Fourth Personal Democracy Forum . Shirky asserts that we have a “huge, and largely unused, participatory surplus of people who are ready to contribute to efforts and causes larger than themselves.”

The authors of this paper experienced that surplus five years ago when they worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. That campaign innovated in the use of social networks before that term existed. But, even had Howard Dean been elected, the transition from a social network designed for campaigning to a social network designed for governing would not have been easy or obvious. For the past four years, the authors have been working on (as principle designer and as advisers) a software platform designed to tap the “participatory surplus” of the citizenry. But, our experience and research has shown that to accomplish the aims of such a system, it is not enough simply to put citizens together into a large, open, virtual space. A social networking system designed for participatory governance needs to mirror some of the structure of the government itself, and needs to provide a range of work flows by which the government and the citizens can affect one another.

This paper describes the current context and the underlying poltical/social considerations that led us down this path.”

1 Comment Virtual political districts for participatory government

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