Technology Pulls Back the Political Curtain

Sam Blakeslee
Founding Director of the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, and a former California State Senator and Assemblyman.

When I left the legislature 18 months ago, I confess I left feeling unsatisfied. I felt this way for conflicting reasons. On one hand, my experience behind the curtain gave me such insight, clarity and passion about where I wanted to focus my policy and reform efforts.  But at the same time, the pointless institutional and partisan barriers to getting things done continually frustrated me.

Like most former electeds, I wrestled with the question of whether to find another office to run for in order to get back into the system and back in the fight.  But I recognized that to accomplish the reforms I am most passionate about, I had to chart a different course because those who operate within the system must largely live under the rules of the system.

Real reform, the kind that I am passionate about, is about disrupting that status quo and transforming how government fundamentally operates.

In politics we hear and say a lot of lofty things. But such high-minded ideals are rarely operationalized into something of practical application.

So when I left office I decided to return to my roots as a scientist and start building experiments.  I want to test the idea that technology can truly change not just our economic marketplace, but also our basic political system.

So I founded the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Working with some of the best and brightest faculty and students, we launched a project called Digital Democracy.  The premise behind this new tool is quite simple: the fastest way to have the greatest impact on how government functions is to pull back the curtain and let everyone see who is pulling the levers.

We are doing this by creating a new web portal that allows users to search the content of legislative hearing videos.  Although most hearings are video recorded, they largely sit un-accessed in an online archive. This is because it is virtually impossible to find any meaningful content unless the user already knows precisely what they are looking for and where to look for it.  With the new Digital Democracy program users will be able to search the spoken word or search by individual speaker, instantly accessing a treasure trove of new data.

As I’ve traveled the state presenting this tool I’ve largely focused my comments on how the system will significantly empower the public to hold government accountable.  And I believe that is absolutely true.  But here I want to highlight why I think this tool will also result in government holding itself more accountable.

Those of us who’ve authored, negotiated and advocated for legislation understand that bills evolve as they move through the process.  This fluid process of incorporating stakeholder input and earning votes involves a lot of commitments and demands a lot of people work together in good faith.  But sometimes this process breaks down.  Commitments are made but not honored. Games are played and the clock is intentionally run down to jam legislators, staff and advocates.

I recall a number of occasions during my time in the legislature when I would see a bill come before me that appeared to not include amendments that had been promised. Or an advocate would pull me off the floor and ask me to oppose a bill because the author had broken a commitment to include specific language.  In those moments, I simply had no way to quickly go back and search the record of what was said in the committee hearing.

By creating a tool that allows users to instantly retrieve statements made in committee and scan the hearing transcripts, legislators and advocates working within the system will be able to ensure that commitments are honored.

Our team of faculty, students and advisors all see the potential that this Digital Democracy tool holds for opening up government to promote better public participation and overall accountability. We recently completed a four week beta test with input from over 200 invited beta testers from government watchdog organizations, community advocacy groups, local and state government representatives and technologists.  The beta version of the tool, which includes a sampling of current year budget hearings, is now available for the public to sign up as beta testers.  If you are interested in exploring the site and providing feedback on the future design and build out of the tool, please visit www.digitaldemocracy.org.

The Digital Democracy project is just one example of the work we are doing at the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy. Our multidisciplinary teams of experts from campus, industry and government are also collaborating on cutting edge, disruptive technology-enabled solutions in energy, education, and finance.  We believe that new solutions to old problems, if forged in the California spirit of innovation and imagination, have the power to tear down the established institutional and partisan barriers that have blocked meaningful reform in our state.

Sam Blakeslee is a former California State Senator and Founder of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

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