Attention Craig Newmark: Citizens aren't customers

Attention Craig Newmark: Citizens aren't customers

Summary: Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, has offered a thoughtful but misguided palliative at CNN to the shortcomings of the age of networked democracy.... if you know how Americans use the Net to talk, you can easily stay in touch with real people.


Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, has offered a thoughtful but misguided palliative at CNN to the shortcomings of the age of networked democracy.

... if you know how Americans use the Net to talk, you can easily stay in touch with real people.

Speaking as a customer service rep, that's the real deal.

I agree wholeheartedly that the Web can be used to improve the democratic system in the United States, but Craig's approach relies on the idea that citizens are customers who must be served and responded to. It sounds good, for sure. Yet it is this perspective that undermines democratic participation, because simply being able to vote "yes" or "no" about ideas—whether directly in some sort of "permanent town hall" or by sending money to a candidate or PAC—is the path of followers, not leaders. Political consultants have excelled at giving people a lot to do, both in face-to-face and social networking politics—without ceding any power to them.

The idea of citizens as customers, which has roots in both parties' rhetoric over the past 30 years, strips the voter of the power to express individual opinion on individual issues in exchange for their rubber-stamped vote for one of two competing mass-media defined big pictures that promise a simple quid pro quo once the election is over. Granted, when politics really functioned at the local level that quid pro quo was powerful, coming in the form of patronage and favors doled out by elected officials and political machines, but the promise today is simply that we'll get good customer service without any other value from government.

How fast I get a tax refund or access to a government form is not a reflection of the success of government. Nor is my ability to vent in public without an expectation that I'll be listened to during non-election years. Instead, we should be throwing the doors open so that every function of government is transparent and citizens can find out how to join the discussion for the other two or four years that the election cycle suspends public participation.

America needs more leaders, who will step up and speak truth to power and on behalf of their ideas rather than content themselves with a biennial or quadrennial vote and then wait to see if they get the service they expected from government. Exposing real power to the people through information technology would be a radical change by contrast.

Polling and blogs are an empty substitute for political participation, as are almost all the excellent, but simply informational, sites Craig Newmark sites his article. They provide the illusion that you are acting without any of the power of action.

The fact that Barack Obama has raised record amounts of money through the Web doesn't translate into change at the policy-making level. It shows people will invest in a dream of change. We need them to create change locally instead.

Craig leads off with: "Like most people, I really don't want to be bothered with politics. On a gut level, it seems to be the province of the popular kids, and I'm a nerd." That's not democracy, but spectator politics. Note that five times as many people watched the second day of the Democratic convention this year than in 2004, according to Nielsen. Remember that 2004 was the year of Howard Dean, and then think about the fact that we have succeeded in engaging more people in the debate but have not seen a dramatic transformation of the issues this year.

Alas, politics isn't something we should be bothered with nor is the successful kid from high school likely to be the successful politician in later life. Those kids don't know the art of compromise then and seldom learn it. And political issues should bother us, they should eat at us and get us to act. Simply waiting for a leader to come along, then to support or follow them, isn't sufficient for democracies, although that's what we are told is all we can expect. Politics is life acting through the community, power flowing based on the ability to convince others that our ideas should be adopted or adapted into policy. It's riotous and ugly, as the old saying about not wanting to see laws or sausage made tells us, but it can be exhilarating, too. Just look at the faces of the people at the conventions who have fought their way to Denver or Minneapolis to support a candidate and negotiate with other factions over the ideas they want represented in public policy.

Every one of the sites Craig Newmark points to in his article do good work. I believe transparency in government is essential, though it should be transparent to citizens by function rather than through acts of information liberation conducted by the Sunlight Foundation. IT could give us real transparency, the ability to look over our politicians' shoulders as they do their work. With the foundation of access, people could become truly engaged with the issues they care about and politicians would be forced to engage those concerns when they were well articulated and energetically promoted. Then, we'd all be politicians and power would be really distributed.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Government, Government US, Software

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  • Democracy versus politics

    Thank you for discussing the difference between spectator politics and participative democracy. It seems to me that technology can definitely be put to better use for enabling the latter. At the risk of rambling, perhaps that might be a role that the newspaper industry could reposition itself into...that of facilitating communication between the population and the government. I am always amazed at how little support my local newspaper (Seattle Times) provides for tracking the votes and positions of my representatives, and providing a means for me to provide feedback to my representatives.
  • Couldn't agree with you more, Mitch ;

    ?citizen? is not at all the same thing as ?customer?, or for that matter, ?client?. And that applies equally well on this side of the pond as it does on yours. Unfortunately, nominally ?democratic? governments on both sides have been attempting for decades to erase the distinction - and quite successfully, as well....

  • RE: Attention Craig Newmark: Citizens aren't customers

    While I agree with most of what you have written, I am still struck by the fact that there seem to be entire governmental entitites/agencies that exist solely to employ and protect those within them. And things don't ever seem to change, and there is nothing that seems to matter. There is no meaningful incentive for them to change/modernize of aspire to do better/more.

    I sometimes feel like an anarchist, and would want eliminate one or more governmental unit, e.g. liquidate it, and start over, and see what the impacts would be on other governmental units.
    • No doubt -- bureaucratic entropy is a huge problem

      We can fix those problems without throwing out the whole
      system. If you look at the Constitution and its ability to
      hold divergent interests together through a process of
      evolutionary change (judicial and legislative), the basis of
      U.S. government is remarkably resilient. The agencies
      aren't immune from those changes, but people have to
      actually debate the boring parts of government rather than
      simply be satisfied by the heights of oratory during the
      election in order for these changes to happen.

      I'm all for activism between elections to accomplish these
      changes and to define the next election's issues based on
      substantive rather than rhetorical questions.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
  • RE: Attention Craig Newmark: Citizens aren't customers

    There's a real problem in our country that's been around for a long time. It's sit on your backside and do nothing but gripe.

    "Oh I won't vote because so and so is running", "It's too much of a hassle to express my opinion", blah, blah, blah.

    Get over it. Democracy is NOT easy. It's not the dribble they teach in schools. It's being ready at the drop of a hat to fight and to defend the land you live on and the rights you enjoy as a CITIZEN of the US of A. But if that came down to being a requirement of living here, a lot of our 'youth' and even some of our older boomers would simply pick up their cellphone/blackberry/iphone and text or call their circle (clique) of friends and tell them they were going to Canada.

    Of course nobody has wondered what we'd do if Canada attacked the US. Who you gonna nuke, your neighbor to the North? Not like we're going to separate the continent.

    The net/web is a great tool for some things. In other cases, it's a chance for those too scared to come out from behind the screen and express their opinions in public to do so.

    Personally, I did pick up the weapon and defend your rights to be here. I also did it when it was not popular back when Carter was President. Oh well, the world changes. Now those people who we feared are killing our brotehrs and sisters and people are worried about democracy on the web.

    I say screw the web! Start taking the millions of dollars you people are making out there and start solving some of the problems here on our shores. Yes, there's problems in Africa and Asia and we help there when needed. But what about our homeless, our literacy level, our strive to make the best products? We'd rather ship America overseas than create it here on our shores.

    People bitch because things here are bad...It's because your ass is too lazy to get up and do something that someone else will do for 1/3 or less of the wages you're making. Americans are lazy. And now that I am a citizen of this country (have been since I was 13) I can say that, and defend anyone else's right to do the same.

    We now return you to your useless griping existence.

    Will Obama solve all the issues? NO. Will McCain? Doubtful. Will anyone else? Nope. Why? Because Americans are lazy. Pure and simple and they'd rather have someone else do it for them.

    WAKE UP PEOPLE! The alarm is ringing and you're STILL asleep at the wheel.

  • RE: Attention Craig Newmark: Citizens aren't customers

    Not only are citizens NOT customers but they're not much in the way of citizens either... That is, of course, unless you're counted among the fortunate few corporate entities that have a 100,000 plus to buy a bit of influence with a politician or two. Thing is money won't buy you love, as Hurricane Gustav bears down upon New Orleans we are witness to one of the largest evacuations in American history. Odd in that Gustav making landfall as a cat.2 and coming off a new moon (low tide) will not be nearly the monster as Katrina almost cat.4 and full moon (high tide). As Al Gore was to <a href="">address the Democratic Convention</a> North Carolina ETV cut from their coverage concerning the prime time address to air a two year old show about mineral deposits in Western Carolina... After they concluded the program (and before they cut back to the Democratic Convention coverage) they stopped for a word from ?our? sponsors... This program was brought to you by the generous support of Exxon Mobile... Yep and so is the Exxon Mobile Congress, the best money can buy you better believe. Check out the clip from Al's address to the convention and this from <a href="">Cspan</a> ... Amen
    • If all people care about... the party designation and a handful of hot-button issues, then it's really easy for politicians to be on the take for the issues most people don't care about, but lobbyists do. The more people pay attention, the more politicians are forced to listen to the people who elected them.

      Thus, Mitch is correct.
      John L. Ries