Yesterday, Meg Tully with Maryland Reporter conveyed a study by OpenGov finding that 66% of the 614 Marylanders surveyed were dissatisfied with the public information they were receiving regarding new state laws and regulations. Notably, this was a mobile phone survey, meaning the results should not be skewed by the "prism of land-line opinions". More importantly, when broken out by age, 74% of voters between 18-49 were dissatisfied, meaning they were more likely to report dissatisfaction than their 50+ counterparts.
Citing the high utilization of Facebook and Twitter amongst those surveyed, Seamus Kraft, executive director of OpenGov, was quoted as saying, “We see those numbers as opportunities.”
"Opportunity" is a word that slows things down a bit. Your mind catches on it like a hook. "Opportunity for whom? Me? How?" It is premised on the idea that things can be better; a void can be filled. Not only that things should be better, but there are available means to do so.
As you all know, citizen engagement has been a focus of my campaign for Delegate and actually a big reason why I decided to run in the first place. As I describe my campaign, there are "procedural and substantive components". Procedurally, I think we need to utilize 21st Century connectivity to create new platforms for engagement, considering the busy parent as our target audience and working out from there. The substantive components are my policy interests in small business, transportation, education, veterans, and so on.
Not only is this an interest of mine, but I think it will become the new norm for 21st Century politicians as the expectations of a informed electorate are increased. Many lament the withering of local journalism, as I do as well, but I honestly believe the void can, and will, be filled with the direct voices of those local journalism would otherwise cover: Elected Officials. Bias will be implicit in the speaker, fluff will dissolve under scrutiny, and the conversation will be enlarged.
How do we get started? Here are my ideas:
1. Be Accessible - This is old school, but provides the bedrock for any efforts for citizen engagement. We are fortunate in Howard County that our delegation is very responsive to the concerns of the electorate. I have heard specific mention that "Guy Guzzone/Jim Robey/Ed Kasemeyer/etc. got right back to me about (issue I cared about)" sometimes relaying a memory from 5 years ago. I will also hear that "(X Politician) never returned my e-mail. I guess they're too busy for me." It is apparent that some elected officials see constituent services as a critical component of their job, while others see it as something that they'll try to get to when they have time. From my review, citizens who want to be engaged care more about your e-mail and phone response than your vote.
2. Utilize Social Networks to Engage - Facebook and Twitter are fickle friends. Due to the relative anonymity of the Internet (even with Facebook), people are much more likely to criticize, attack, and ridicule than they may be in person. This has prompted most elected officials to limit their social network presence to "what's fun about me". Everyone loves the Ravens or the Redskins. Everyone loves chocolate. Everyone goes to the beach. Everyone takes pictures cutting ribbons. It is only those positions that have general acceptance amongst voters that get posted for discussion. I think the new norm is going to require more frequent updates about those issues that may require additional digestion. Engage on the Stormwater Management Fee. Engage on the costs of Infrastructure. In the short term, you will be misquoted by old media, but you will be known as someone attempting to speak the truth. More importantly, you will be known as someone who wants to engage.
3. Crowd Source - This is the hardest and requires the most work. Let's open-source state law-making to let the public comment, at their own convenience, on proposed laws. Let's create Idea Exchanges to mine for innovations in policy from the public-at-large. Technology has shown us that innovation can meet the limits of our imagination, we only need to show a willingness to try something new.
We're at a precipice of great change. Law-makers can either be on the forefront or find themselves quickly left behind. I'm proposing these ideas, not out of charity, but because I see them as the essentials of future governance. As a first step, I'm hosting an On-line Town Hall next Monday to discuss what matters most to you and what inspires you in state government. Let's start the conversation and keep it going through next November and on to Annapolis. This is our opportunity.
Have a great Friday doing what you love. It's impossible not to.