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Orgware virtual districts: empowering citizens to manage government (call for feedback)

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. There is a very un-beautiful and still-buggy installation at http://newgov.us.

I'd love to hear any feedback on the paper.

Matt Cooperrider

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Here is the abstract and the start of the intro to the paper:


North Americans possess a “participatory surplus” that fuels open source software and presidential campaigns, energizing millions. Well-understood social networking services could provide a barackobama.com 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.
While not part of the Chagora platform referenced below specifically its also important to note, of course, that the same sort of tensions and interplay betweens distributed and hierarchical networks in the decision landscape are applicable to economic and investment decision systems which have also broken down in significant ways which are not being addressed or clearly recognized.

Shareholder empowerent mechanisms are certainly part of that but not the whole part since organizations above a certain size (there's that 'scale' thing again!) have expanded "commons" obligations which are not properly accounted for and must be.

Actually some potential Chagora ownership and monetization scenarious may serve here as well. What is needed is a more wholistic approach that recognizes additional levels of interelatedness between a multiplicity of interdependent political/economic/social systems.

As the nature of criticality* in living systems makes clear its a never-ending job!

From Science News Article by Patrick Barry December 6th, 2008; Vol.174 #12 (p. 22)
No Gene is an Island

"It turns out that ordered and chaotic behavior are both dangerous for a cell. Ordered behavior is too stable, so the cell can’t respond to challenges in its environment. Chaotic behavior balloons disturbances until they overrun the cell, preventing the cell from keeping its interior suitable for the chemistry of life.

But there’s a Goldilocks zone at the threshold between order and chaos called criticality..."

And THAT is the zone for successful representative government and innovative economic complex/chaotic systems as well.
Hi All,

I'm following this discussion, and will be sure to reply to your comments.

Some basic info re Chagora Project which has considerable relationship:

Speech and Association - Fundamentals of a Neutral Hub in a Developing Internet Landscape

The Role of Political MicroDonation (under $1) and Electoral/Geographic Networking Facilitation in Empowering the Distributed Network

Prototype & FAQ: http://www.Chagora.com/faq.aspx

A quote from Eyal Sivan, our newest member re "The Connective Hypothesis http://www.TheConnective.org

"The Connective refers to the global culture emerging as a result of the proliferation of information technology.

A connective refers to a distributed network made up of voluntary participants, organized around a specific interest or context, with each member seeking to achieve an individual goal.

To be connective is to be expressly designed or predisposed to take advantage of voluntary loose associations, or the resulting efficiencies, in order to gain personal value.

And from Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameenphone of Bangladesh:

"If concentration of power has contributed to poor governance, the solution must lie in dispersing power… ICTs empower from below while devolving power from above, resulting in a two-pronged attack on abuse of state power that has left so much of the world’s population languishing in poverty… ICTs can be the means to both freedom and development by blindsiding obstacles to both."
*ICT = Information & Communication Technology

Chagora is about empowering all us folks out here without pedigrees and credentials. It’s about realizing that there’s a wealth of good ideas and solutions available to us if we broaden the avenues for finding and implementing those ideas. The very idea of a free market for goods is that even an idiot has enough sense to value those goods that are important to him. A free market in ideas requires a viable public square where meaningful lines of opinion and motivation are available to all!

Chagora is a Civilization Fundamental
And an essential technology for the Individual

Capability ENABLES Responsibility!

blog: http://CulturalEngineer.blogspot.com
linkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/culturalengineer
facebook: http://profile.to/culturalengineer/
twitter id: CulturalNgineer
Many problems in governance relate to unaddressed issues of scale, identity, natural human community size... and resolving the interplay between multiple interlocking systems of decision and motivation.

There is a tension between hierarchical and distributed network structures in the decision process.

There is a necessary role for a distributed network of what might be called "individually-controlled & commons-dedicated" empowered nodes as part of the solution to both scaling representation AND enabling new opportunities for commons oriented economic activity in certain areas.

The design, monetization, terms & conditions, etc of such a platform containing these FUNDAMENTAL elements of Political (and other) MicroDonation/Money-Speech and Electoral/Geographcic Networking Facilitation are more akin to elements of a constitutional framework for governance than everyday endeavours and so bear attention.

Capability ENABLES Responsibility
Moving to the Next Iteration!
Hi Tom,

The Chagora project looks great and I can certainly see a lot of overlap. Do you see any specific convergence between the virtual congressional districts strategy and Chagora's goals? Perhaps there are specific policy initiatives that you would want to push?

It's quite likely but I will need to know more about your project and strategy. I am not familiar with the platform you are building beyond what is suggested above. We are certainly keeping careful watch.

The only policy I am pushing is to get Chagora built and backed and, of course to protect the fundamentals of its structure and mechanisms and expand awareness and understanding of the theoretical underpinnings which led to its invention as a necessary tool with certain critical characteristics I believe essential to scaling representative systems as well as others more generally beneficial and affiliated with these same purposes.

And, in truth, since I am working independently and without a net on this the last couple of years, I naturally wish to avoid starvation, foreclosure and the neglect of what I believe are important contributions. Was stopped mid-startup by B of A cutting back my Home Equity Line at the absolute worst time!

And yes, I agree, the overlap is substantial.

I don't recall discussion of your project at either the PDF in June which I attended nor at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this November which Mr. Trippi attended as did I as a guest of John Battelle.

I would welcome the opportunity to know more about your project and, of course would like to believe that I may have something to contribute after much solitary effort...

I even had to learn to make my own commercials!

Fixing the Political Relationship!
Hi Tom,

We were at PDF as a major sponsor (though I had not joined yet and was at PDF as a volunteer). Mr. Trippi has become active with us just recently, but has been supportive along the way.

Where are you with the development of Chagora? Also, I'm not clear what the web platform is exactly. Where can I find information on the proposed platform itself?

Also, just re-noticed your point about such a site being governed by a sort of constitution. We very much agree: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/a-website-with-a-constitution/2008/10/23

Chagora site is up tested and practical re its background accounting software at http://www.Chagora.com with functional gateway, credit card processing, separate trust account for donor funds, donor account pages, recipient account pages, user-created opinion page framework w/ beginnings of scaling systems, the beginnings of the localization capabilities which were in process when money stopped (neighborhood pages), and especially was beginning construction of the key LiveDebate function which is vital in its own right but also is critical for building citizen awareness of his own capability. Also several bootstrapping strategies for expansion and to boost public awareness.

The FAQ on the Chagora site provides additional background as does my profile on LinkedIn where I've begun to reach out to a few I feel may be helpful .

Chagora is a structure that can easily overcome large-money in politics and re-enable the individual in the public square via an empowered distributed network counter-balancing the hierarchical concentrations which have distorted this space.

I also believe that the individually-controlled account focussed on "commons" activities is a vital and necessary new civilization requirement for moving to new economic frameworks involving cooperation, new forms of barter and geographically-based networking. But this is farther down the line. And not in opposition to private ownership, but as an alternative and/or supplement in particular areas of activity.

What I am missing is money, a team, management advice, some additional legal work and a little attention would be nice!

For technical details I will suggest you speak to my developer/partners at HyTech Professionals who have been great and understood the possibilties from early on. My focus is on political theory and cultural evolution and I know little about software specifics.

I also have legal help in both the area of intellectual property rights as well as business structures about which I am also often over my head.

And I'm sure I'm forgetting something...

I believe I added the draft Executive Summary (without $ figures) to my post here on this site re the Individual Controlled Account for Commons Activity or something like that.
Hi MC,

Wanted to add a bit on monetization and why Chagora is constructed as a for-profit model.

The impetus for Chagora arose out of an investigation for ways to overcome the power of concentrated money in politics.

The search for that solution (tagline synopsis: The Power of Small Money, Large Number & Immediate Feedback) led to an understanding that what we are really taling about here are...

The Fundamentals of Speech and Association necessary for this new landscape Kevin Kelly calls "The Technium"... which are Political MicroDonation + Electoral/Geographic Networking + Feedback.

see http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2008/05/why-chagora.html

And that further this leads to a natural concentration of donors and recipients for "commons" purposes... we could call it the Technium's Public Square.

(BTW, public finance of elections can operate best through such a system.)

That structure is very, very valuable! But in a way that could be a problem since it could add to destructive feedback loops it's designed to address.

However the solution is fortuitous.

By making Chagora a for profit design with substantial (and finally complete)ownership by the donor base the structure takes on dovetailing benefits.

For this reason...

More than a tool for the individual in the commons, which it certainly is...
The Chagora donor base in aggregate IS the commons... at least within the technium.

The Chagora structure itself then becomes an additional and necessary "check and balance" both on the government on one side and on large private interests on the other (woe be to the entity that ticks off this user base!).

Additionally, a for profit structure reinforces the donor's attraction since he benefits directly and this stablilizes the structure by dispersing its funding sources.

I believe we will benefit by working together!
While I do not know your thoughts for support and monetization I encourage you to consider what we may accomplish together.

We're not creating a business... or a charity... or a service... or a product.

We are constructing a landscape for the evolution of civilization.

Capability ENABLES Responsibility

Draft Executive Summary attached




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