Here in Washington, the politically connected (especially on the left) are focused on figuring out the meaning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s the talk of the town — most operatives are looking on with fascination. Some are trying to figure out the science of the movement, while others look to see how the movement can be co-opted as their own. The chattering class of Washington craves a long narrative, and in this case that means the protests need to to mean something tangible, and for the activists to have demands. But the undercurrent here is: is this occupation the progressive response to the Tea Party?
The answer is that it's not an either or choice, and it'd be unfortunate if it turned in to that. I’d suggest that the Tea Party and the Occupiers(?) are symptoms of a single disease: the growing disconnect between the representative functions of government and the people that it is meant to serve. It's what I like to call the Democracy Gap.
First, let me explain what I mean by “representative functions of government”: Not all government is intended to be democratic, and while populist rhetoric has us, more often than not, forgetting that. It’s really important to note that parts of government: namely the legislative branch of government, the parts of regulatory agencies tasked with gathering citizen input, and parts of the Executive Office of the President are intended to be publicly deliberative. Their job is, in part, to listen to stakeholders of country, weigh input, and do something about it. Other parts of the government — say the security and intelligence communities, as well as many of the career employees of the executive and judicial branches — aren’t intended to be involved in public discourse at all.
The Democracy Gap is a great chasm between this “hearing and deliberative” part of government (what people like to call “Washington”), and the rest of human civilization, and activists — left, right, and orthogonal are beginning to figure this out, and it’s beginning to really tick them off. People are using the internet to become increasingly more organized, but at the same time are becoming more and more disconnected from the mechanics of power inside Washington. Moreover, as the volume of voices grows louder, “Washington” becomes more disconnected — unable to hear the best solutions from the cacophony of noise.
One cause of the the Democracy Gap is something we’ve talked about before: scale. It’s something we’re trying to solve using our platform, ThinkUp, and something we hope you try and solve too. Here’s our explanation of the problem.
Another cause of the democracy gap is linguistic. The language of “Washington” and the language of the constituents it serves are not the same. And while plain language is helpful, it’s unlikely to solve the problem entirely. Our list of recommendations take us part of the way there, and they’re getting traction inside of federal agencies.
Every professional field, from sports to science to medicine to restaurants has its own language. As our friend Andrew Raseij likes to point out, few lawyers in Washington can tell the difference between a server and a waiter, as I look at ESPN.com, I cannot figure out what anything to the right of RBI means on this table. Any armchair quarterback can probably tell me what these numbers mean, yet it’s unlikely that many armchair activists know what the FAR and PRA are. This problem cannot be solved unless there’s serious effort on both sides: government working harder on plain language, and activists working harder at understanding govspeak. We’re trying to solve that problem at Expert Labs by encouraging government to be more social — to go where people are and to engage with them.
Another thing that causes the democracy gap is routing and obfuscation. The thing is, government has a million tiny ears waiting and listening for citizen input. These ears though, sometimes through management and sometimes through legislation, aren’t pointed at where the right noises are coming from. Public requests for comments are buried in the bowels of federal buildings and federal websites leaving only those with a map and the language of washington capable of whispering into them. For the individual citizen that may be ticked off at, say, Wall Street, it’s unlikely that they know whether the FTC, the CFPB, the IRS or the Department of Commerce is the right place to send their complaint. It’s likely that instead, they’ll find an online petition somewhere, fill it out, and go about their day entrusting that a third party delivers their message to the right place. More and more often, it gets delivered to the wrong place with the wrong message.
When people ask me “What is it that Expert Labs does” I tell them that what we do is work on solving this gap using the best technology we can. But most of this problem isn’t technical: it’ll likely take Tea Partiers and the Occupiers understanding that they’re not playing a zero-sum game. And we’ll still have a government that can’t hear the right solutions over the noise of discontent.