Why I’m Running for SoS

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Over the last six years (the first three heading up the bi-partisan non-profit Common Sense CA and the last three as head of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine), I have seen Californians do amazing things. From citizens helping to solve a complex water policy issue up in Humboldt County to Bellians participating in the city’s first public budget workshop to Santa Barbara residents engaging online about local budget decisions, and high school kids in La Mesa working with the City to help refine their youth services programs and many others, I have learned over and over again one simple rule: informed Californians, given the opportunity to participate in a good process (online and/or offline) can make more creative, and more sustainable decisions than government alone. This is especially true on tough issues.

But when we look at Sacramento and the Secretary of State’s Office in particular, we see an alternative universe: a government that keeps vital new businesses at arm’s length in an antiquated process, has pervasive problems with technology (and just this week), enacts an unconstitutional insider deal to put a ballot initiative at the top of the ticket without public input, and administers an electoral system recently ranked towards the bottom of all 50 states by the non-partisan Pew Center. Californians and California businesses are right to feel disengaged.

The relationship between government and citizens is undergoing fundamental change (as I’ve described here, here, and here). Due to factors ranging from the Internet’s capacity to easily (and cheaply) organize and inform citizens to an ongoing fiscal crisis that bedevils public sector budgets, forward-thinking governments are taking a more proactive approach to engaging their citizens on tough policy decisions.

Citizenship is hard but rewarding work. It always has been. In a slim volume titled Hindrances to Good Citizenship, the British diplomat and observer of America Lord James Bryce wrote this: “Remember, for this is the kernel of the matter, that the theory of democracy assumes a far higher level of good sense, judgment, honest purpose, devotion to the public welfare in the citizen of a free country, than is either for or needed in the subject of a despotic monarchy or of an oligarchy. Thus the deficiencies which free governments show reduce themselves to the failure of the citizens to reach the needed standard of civic excellence.” He penned these words in 1909.

Readers of Fox & Hounds may know I’ve had my differences (here, here, and here) with our current SoS, but in important ways these failings are not her fault, so much as the expected results of electing people to a position who have little background or passion for the real work of the office.

These are the qualities we have seen in most candidates to this office:

Partisanship: Like no other statewide office, the Secretary of State is meant to be the “Chief Engagement Officer” for California’s citizens and businesses…without regard to whether that citizen is a Republican or Democrat or Tea Partier or Green Partier. Partisanship is how we get the recent unconstitutional decision to place Governor Brown’s tax measure at the top of November’s ballot as Prop 30, and partisanship is why we’re hearing a number of recent and current “reform” proposals described in purely political terms. The challenge to California’s civic health is not simply that we need higher numbers of certain groups voting – it’s that we don’t have enough Californians participating. Look at the turnout numbers for the LA Mayoral Primary. Our challenge is not too many people voting illegally, but not enough people voting legally. As a super majority Legislature weighs initiative reform, it is disturbing – though completely understandable – to hear politicians propose only reforms that will redound to their Party’s benefit.

From heading up the bi-partisan organization, Common Sense California, to consulting on civic engagement projects with no predetermined political outcome in mind, my interest has always been in good, participatory, and inclusive processes, not driving the public towards a particular budget or land use decision. This is not a perspective I’ve seen in many politicians.

Lack of Experience: It takes more than putting one’s name on a bill to have expertise in civic engagement, and it takes more than knowing the right jargon to understand how technology is fundamentally changing the citizen/government relationship. In the “Gov 2.0” world, we know that platforms are used for both transactions (from paying tickets to registering one’s business [ahem] to getting a pothole filled) and interactions (from providing government with feedback on planning decisions, to understanding how our government spends our money). A lack of this experience is a possible explanation as to why the office appears to be failing in both of our transactions and interactions.

Beyond covering these developments in our “Gov2.0 Watch” blog, and hosting “Gov2.0/LA” for the last two years, I’ve worked with governments in implementing technology to better engage and inform citizens on issues ranging from land use to budgets. While I’m always learning in this exploding field, I know the diagnostic questions to ask about technology – to discover where it works, and where it doesn’t. Yes, I’d love to see online voting work, too, but if we care about the sanctity of the vote [see this from Florida and this from Washington, DC], we must tread lightly, if deliberately. On the other hand (pun intended) the use of mobile apps to “nudge” voters to their nearest voting place, or inform them about trade-offs on ballot measures must be further promoted to California’s voters.

Prior to my efforts in increasing civic participation, I worked in the private sector for a dozen years, selling and consulting on graphic services projects – from online ordering platforms to direct mail programs. I know the importance of design – both online and print – and how it affects the “user experience”. We need a top/down (or better, bottom/up) design review of everything the SoS does – from its website to its forms – to make the transactional work the SoS does easier, more understandable. Last December, I was invited to participate in the Redesigning Democracy Summit at North Carolina State University. There, I learned again how far we fall short of other states in how we regard design in civic participation. With so many great designers and artists in the state, I will work with organizations like the American Institute for Graphic Design to convene a California “chapter” of “Design for Democracy”.

Experience is also necessary when it comes to public engagement processes. From my experiences in consulting on the low impact, “California Speaks on Healthcare” to higher impact public processes like Vallejo’s “Participatory Budgeting” effort, I know the challenges to implementing public engagement processes outside of the usual “public comment”. That’s why I’m a fan (as I wrote here) of Oregon’s Citizen’s Initiative Review, and will look for ways, as Secretary of State, to adapt it to California. We must increase not just participation, but citizen deliberation in our initiative process, and the CIR is one way to do this. In Oregon, it has been opposed by many in the “initiative industrial complex”, which makes it an actual reform candidate.

Experience also means understanding the growing importance of competition in forming public policy and encouraging civic engagement. Six years ago, I developed an annual “Public Engagement Grant Program” where California governments and civic organizations compete for grant support to their proposed public processes. This open-ended (though with firm criteria) approach to civic innovation has yielded amazing processes from all over the state. In a similar way, I propose we create a “Eureka Prize for Civic Participation” out of the SoS office, offering counties recognition for things like increasing their voter turnout, and using technology to improve participation.  From our President’s Race to the Top program to NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s “Mayor’s Challenge”, we see civic innovation and engagement stimulated by competition.

Lack of Passion: Finally, a qualified SoS must be passionate about participation. Eight years ago, I took the step of leaving a good private sector career to return to school, getting my masters in public policy at Pepperdine. It was a life-changing decision, that led to others – most notably my post-graduation decision to head up a small bi-partisan non-profit named Common Sense California. This meant turning down more lucrative offers from my “old life”, but in innumerable ways, I’ve been rewarded by the opportunities to work with hundreds of government officials and citizens to improve the ways they interact.

Related, one of my campaign platforms is “Pete’s Pledge”: the promise to tie my compensation to voter turnout (only downward if necessary) – even if it means refunding salary to the State. For most of a dozen years in the private sector, my compensation was tied to performance; we should bring some element of “pay for performance” to leaders in the public sector too.

For most candidates, the SoS has been either a “stepping stone” or a “couch”. For me it’s the job that’s taken me 20 years to prepare for.

This is where the future of governance is going – not just “Gov 2.0”, but “Citizen 2.0”.  Or maybe, as Lord Bryce noted above, it’s a return to an earlier notion of citizenship or “civic excellence”. Bipartisanship, experience, technology, accountability and a passion for participation – these are the foundations of platforms and ideas that will develop in the coming months. These are the arguments I will be making for the votes and participation of all Californians.

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