Technology and government don’t always mix.

After all, I recall registering BlueFletch a few years ago and the Georgia Secretary of State website recommend I use Netscape to complete our corporate registration (and yes, this was after 2008).

At the 2014 Great Wide Open conference Clay Johnson touched on this government technology gap a bit during the keynote. As he continued, one chart from his presentation has stuck with me over the past few weeks.

Scaling Democracy

The system of representation from our founders created is no more. New technology, information spread, cultural changes, globalization, etc, etc. You know the drill.

Yet one change I hadn’t considered before was scale.


This is crazy!

From around 30,000 citizens per congressional district in the late 1700s, we’ve grown to nearly 700,000 citizens per representative today. For those keeping track that’s a 2,233% increase!

How can one person be expected to represent the concerns and interests of 700,000?

What About a Localized Democracy?

Clay continued with a logical follow up – if democracy at a macro level doesn’t scale, what about a localized model? That could work right?

He then did this test:

  1. Everyone in the room stand up
  2. If you don’t know who your President is sit down
  3. If you don’t know who your Vice President is sit down
  4. If you can’t name both Georgia Senators sit down
  5. If you can’t name your US Representative in Congress sit down
  6. If you can’t name your Governor…you get the idea…

He kept going, naming the Lt. Governor and beyond, but by this point over 2/3 of the room was sitting down (myself included, unfortunately). And we hadn’t even reached the city of Atlanta yet!

How long would you have remained standing?

What about the average citizen?

Despite the information age we’re apparently in, citizens are still struggling to stay informed of who their local representatives are and what local issues they’re facing.

To be sure, the onus for this is largely on the citizens themselves, as the information is out there. But on the other hand it’s buried beneath so much national news and sensationalist media that it’s not exactly easy to find.

At this point a few ideas started brewing – if a national democracy isn’t scalable and a localized democracy isn’t working yet, can technology help fix this gap? Here are two thoughts.

1. Leverage Online Micro-Communities

Hyper local online communities are sprouting up. For example over the past six months I’ve been using Next Door with my neighbors.

But look at my “Categories” over on the left side:

next door

Classifieds, Crime & Safety, Documents, Free items, General, Lost & Found, Recommendations…where is “Learn about my neighborhood”?

Political discussion are already happening on places like Facebook, but those have withered into promotional soap boxes. What if we could shift from a social to a crowdsourced content model to inform citizens about their local government?

I already get political emails to my Next Door account, but they’re disorganized and sparse at best. Can we achieve the same level of quality as a Wikipedia on a hyper local scale such as your own subdivision?

2. Move Participation Online

Turnout for the 2012 Presedential election is estimated at around 57.5%. And that’s compared to a 19% turnout in some of Atlanta’s recent local elections!

Isn’t democracy supposed to be about participation?

I know, voting can be a pain. So instead, imagine a world where you can vote right from your own home. Think voter turnout would increase then???

Email reminders when it’s time to vote…no waiting in lines or driving across town..heck, I could even go to my new Next Door Elected Officials page to read up on candidates while I’m voting so that I make a more informed decision.

Obviously there are challenges and voter fraud will be a concern, but these are solvable.

Should we strive for a model of democracy where we know more about our town council members than we do the President? I’m not sure – that’s up to you to decide for now.

But can technology help us get there? Absolutely.