Alex Howard reported yesterday on the release of Democracy.io, a sleek new tool for emailing members of Congress. It’s a nice tool, built with the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based on open datasets created by the Sunlight Foundation.
I hate to sound like a broken record here, but… I don’t get it.
Here’s Sina Khanifar, in an interview with Alex Howard (emphasis added):
“Advocacy organizations that can afford it have long had access to tools for delivering bulk constituent messages, but those solutions are expensive and generally inaccessible for regular citizens. Democracy.io helps fill that gap by giving people an easy way to have their voices are heard in Washington.”
What’s the use-case here? Who are these “regular citizens” that want to share their thoughts and opinions with members of Congress unprompted by advocacy organizations? Where are they getting their information from, and what’s prompting them to write these digital letters?
The literature on political mobilization is pretty clear on this point: people are far more likely to partake in political activity when they are asked to do so. Whether that’s donating money, knocking on doors, showing up to a hearing, or writing a letter, we tend to take political action because someone we trust/generally agree with asked us to do so.
Participating-because-we-were-asked is sometimes treated as non-“organic,” not as democratically healthy as spontaneous citizen participation that comes out of the civic ether. But let’s be real for a second: it takes a very particular type of person to walk through life believing that (1) they have all the answers, (2) Congress needs to hear those answers, and (3) writing an e-mail ought to do the trick. On season 1 of Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope referred to it as “people caring loudly at me.”
This isn’t to say that Democracy.io isn’t nice tech. It appears to be well-designed. Some future, nascent social movements might be able to deploy this tool on a mass scale, bypassing software vendors that they can’t afford. The codebase might be combined with something else to massively simplify some genuinely hard problems.
But, at least in its current form… I don’t get it. Citizen participation tends to be organized and mediated through networked advocacy groups. Those groups face a thousand different problems, some small, some big. How did simplifying the process for emailing congress out-of-the-blue rise to the top of the list?