The Digital Democracy Project

The Digital Democracy Project

English

Problems and Purpose

The Digital Democracy project was started by students at the California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) as part of a non-partisan initiative to increase governmental transparency and to support policymakers and the media in documenting governmental decisions on the ratification of legislative bills. To this end, the project has created a publicly accessible online database of California legislative hearings in transcript, audio, and/or visual form. In an interview with CivSource, Sam Blanksee, founding director of Cal Poly's IATPP (Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy) and former senator stated that that “we developed Digital Democracy to open up government."[1] Since its founding in 2015, the Digital Democracy initiative has extended its reach beyond the state of California to include Florida, New York, and Texas. As well, the online platform now offers "complete text, history and other information on all bills introduced before the state legislature, as well and legislative bill analyses and information on upcoming legislative hearings."[2]

History

Lawmakers in California introduce an average of 5,000 bills each legislative session, creating a booming industry for the state's 1,100 registered lobbyists. Before Digital Democracy, there was little insight into the law-making process despite the size of the state’s annual budget – more than $150 billion – and the large number of bills and hearings.[2] This situation had persisted despite the passing of the Brown Act in 1953 whose opening chapter states that:

"The Legislature finds and declares that public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in [California] exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."

In the 50s years since its passing, California’s state legislators exempt themselves from most of the Brown Act’s requirements, including even the minimal standard of producing meeting minutes.[2]

Digital Democracy was established in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at the California Polytechnic University (San Luis Obispo) with the goal of achieving legislative openness. Initially, this democratic initiative was only available in the state of California. However, in 2015 the initiative was successfully implemented in New York via a partnership with the NAACP.[3]

Originating Entities and Funding

Digital Democracy was established in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at the California Polytechnic University (San Luis Obispo). Founded in 2012 the IATPP is directed by former California State Senator and Assembly member Sam Blakeslee. The Institute’s multidisciplinary project team includes Cal Poly faculty members and students. The IATPP is self-supporting, guided by the principles of legislative accountability, encouraging active engagement on contemporary policy debates.

The Rita Allen Foundation has established itself as a major funding partner, donating $165,000 in 2015 and $200,000 in 2017.[4] The Rita Allen Foundation invests in innovative concepts in their earliest stages to influence their growth and endorse revolutionary resolutions to real-world problems.

Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) granted Cal Poly $1,207,538 during the 2014 – 2016 period plans to donate up to $3,963,133 from 2016 – 2019.[5] LJAF’s grants are aligned with their Philosophy of Philanthropy, supporting projects that are intended to produce suitable and ambitious solutions, resulting in transformational change.

In addition, public donation pages have been set up to encourage sponsorship for the project to grow. These contributions are essential for the expansion of the programme, Cal Poly relies heavily on public generosity considering the institute receives no state funding. As a philanthropic organisation, there is an assumed commitment to encourage the donation of monetary grants. The future development of the program will depend on supplementary funding. The Institute raised $1.2 million to operate the project for one year.[6]

Other types of supporting entities include the national government, there has been recognition from the federal administration. In addition, the regional governments in which they are based promote the operation of Cal Poly’s programme. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Worldwide, anyone with an unrestricted internet access can search, watch and share statements made by lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates as they debate, craft and vote on policy proposals.[7] As of 2017, the Digital Democracy programme has received 50,000 registered users.[8] However, legislative recordings are only made in California and New York, currently the other 48 states are currently unaccounted for.

Target users:

Residents: Individuals can discover a variety of issue-based hearings most relevant to them. This informs the public further, allowing the people to become more educated on key political issues. This improves communications between constituents and legislators.[7]

Media: This platform emboldens primary research, from a news perspective this can provide more accurate information allowing journalists to quote key legislators.[7]

Community issue advocates: States often have thousands of community-based issue groups affected by state budget and policy decisions.[2]                                                                                                                                       

Government Watchdog Organizations: non-profit watchdogs are compiling and analysing government data to empower the public with greater insight into the factors influencing policy outcomes.[2]

Methods and Tools Used

The online Digital Democracy initiative offers a practical solution to the lack of legislative transparency: providing users with full transcripts, audio, and video of legislative hearings. As well, the platform utilises modern-day technological advances, this includes data mining and natural language processing. However, it is the combination of facial and voice recognition that has become essential for the overall functionality of the website. This contributes the specification of speakers and lobbyists involved throughout the hearing videos. Data will also be incorporated into the site from MapLight, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, SunLight Foundation, state legislative websites, state Secretary of State Databases of Registered Lobbyists, and government ethics agencies.[7] Thus, there is a heavy reliance on Information and Communications for this programme to operate.

The information and materials contained on the digital democracy website has been compiled from a variety of sources. Powered by Cal Poly’s institute for advanced Technology and Public Policy, their API allows access to the data powering the Digital Democracy platform. The Digital Democracy API is in json format and is currently in its 0.5 version.[7] The digital democracy API is offered free of charge to non-commercial registered users. In addition, Digital Democracy was created in conjunction with ‘CivicActions’ a digital services firm with a specific goal; to ensure government services are accessible for everyone. This software has a user-friendly design, unrestricted, and supporting compliance and open data. 

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

In addition to offering transcripts, video, and audio of state legislative hearings, the online Digital Democracy platform offers "complete text, history and other information on all bills introduced before the state legislature, as well and legislative bill analyses and information on upcoming legislative hearings."[2] As well, the website supports sharing through social media communications which encourages interaction between users and the wider public. Through the Digital Democracy website, the general public can browse different administrative committee videos including select, floor, special, standing and budget subcommittees. Using a filter process, users can search among different transcripts and select their desired video. Footage from assembly committees and state senate hearings are transferred into audio-visual format and uploaded within 24 hours. This gives people the opportunity to analyse the facts of major political decisions in a way that they essentially become part of the governmental process. Furthermore, many small organisations do not have the resources to appoint lobbyists that deliberate on their behalf. Digital Democracy provides an opportunity for different advocacy groups to oversee government officials.

Development and Evolution of the Platform

The Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy’s multidisciplinary project team includes the Cal Poly faculty and students. There is a hierarchy of students and professors, comprising an active advisory board and various institute staff. Decision-making power and participation over the Digital Democracy initiative is thus diffuse but its strict hierarchy gives more weight to senior academic officials. However, since it is an open platform, the number of users will inevitably grow and the project will likely become more user-directed. Indeed, the accessibility of state hearing access has sparked demand in different states, as many are unable to participate. As well, while the integration of social media sharing capabilities encourages users to share Digital Democracy's content, it also permits public deliberation around the effectiveness of the Digital Democracy platform itself. Public pressure may thus increase the say of the general public over the design and function of the platform. 

Platform Content

The majority of Digital Democracy's online offerings comprise state hearings in transcript, audio, and/or video format. Throughout the policy cycle, numerous state legislative committees hold hearings on policy measures that have the potential to become law. Hearings are held before the chambers act on legislative decisions. Essentially, these hearings are a means of presenting information, ensuring a fair and balanced decision. Present throughout are Congressman or government officials, reviewing the process. Different hearings include oversight, investigative, confirmation, ratification and field hearings. In this respect, public participation happens when the people interact by viewing the video recordings, analyse transcripts or share broadcasts via social media communications.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Blakeslee says that after the success of his programme, the team hope to eventually expand the platform nationwide. Digital Democracy has doubled its user base in the last year and plans to add Florida and Texas by 2018, at which point it could reach a third of all Americans. (The four states represent approximately 39% of the US population).[9]

The platform has a large social media presence with over 600 Facebook page likes and Twitter followers.  This has sparked mass media attention, the company has been featured in major news sources, for instance in the USA Today and Los Angeles Times. Furthermore, Digital Democracy has been endorsed by the likes of Gavin Newsom (Lieutenant governor of California) and former Congresswoman and assembly speaker Karen Bass.[7]

In addition, Digital Democracy Platform Launched New Interactive Features. In 2016 Cal Poly’s Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy added new features to their open government platform including floor sessions, proactive email alert system, custom video editing [1]. In fact, “New digital tools might make it easier to engage a new or a broader range of participants that could provide new insights and thereby improve the quality of decision- making by parliaments, political parties and governments”.[10]

Recently, the results of a bipartisan poll were announced. It found that more than three quarters of California voters support the goal of being able to “easily search the contents of public meeting videos for members of the legislature, lobbyists and other speakers on a search engine similar to Google.”[11] This was produced in conjuction with Tulchin Research and SmithJohnson Research and released by the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy.

Although, Digital Democracy has witnessed its fair share of issues, a system malfunction was documented; regarding the construction of a Florida database, “they are having difficulty with inputting lobbyist information”.[8] Moreover, at this present time, many citizens are excluded from using this platform to its full potential.  Obtaining information about their deliberation process is currently an impossible for citizens of 48 states. Furthermore, Statista published that “about 74.5 percent of the US population accessed the internet as of 2015”.[12] This excludes a large proportion of the populace from participating; this is especially applicable to the older generation.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

According to Van Dijk [13] the internet is generally recognised to be an active and creative medium enabling users to transform from viewers, listeners and readers to participants. However, Simon et al [10] states that we still live in a world where debates require speakers to be physically present, there is little use of digital information and data sharing. Decisions are often made behind the scenes that effect the lives of millions. The public is often not present during the decision making process. Simon et al [10] explains that almost every other sphere of life - finance, tourism, shopping, work and our social relationships - has been dramatically transformed by the rise of new information and communication tools. The rise of the internet has stubbornly resisted the beckoning future of total digital democracy. However, many consider Cal Polys Digital Democracy to offer a viable solution to this problem, allowing access into legislative hearings so that the public can participate without any real cost. Start-up programmes such as these aim to reinvent contemporary democracy, making it more interactive, open and accessible.

On the other hand, based on the graph conveyed below; evidently there are varied attitudes over the necessity of governmental data sharing, the public tend to have mixed feelings on this type of initiative. Some may argue that the implementation of this political resource hasn’t ensured that people can directly participate in the workings of government; participants merely observe the process. The programme has the potential of fundamentally changing the decisions of many legislators; perhaps though, it is impossible to measure the real impact Digital Democracy maybe having.

 [14]

Be that as it may, many perceive this system as a key democratic device, acting as a catalyst for further change. Independent, non-partisan concepts such as this are indispensable gateways towards more significant change. I argue that, this programme is an essential stepping stone leading into the direction of a complete ‘digital democracy’. In addition, “Just 5% say that state governments share data very effectively,”[15] this highlights the real need for legislative transparency software. It has been important for bridging the digital divide and increases the legitimacy of decision-making by broadening the pool of participants.[10] This tool can successfully enthuse the public to participate further and understand more in politics. 

 

Secondary Sources

[1] Bailey McCann (2015), ‘California Launches Digital Democracy Project’, Published by Civsource, URL: https://civsourceonline.com/2015/05/07/california-launches-digital-democ...

[2] California Polytechnic State University (2014) ‘Digital Democracy’ Published by The Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy. URL: http://www.iatpp.calpoly.edu/projects/digitaldemocracy.asp

[3] Linda Poon (2017), ‘Attention, State Government Watchdogs: You Might Need This’. Published by: city lab URL: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/02/a-new-search-tool-digital-democra...

[4] The Rita Allen Foundation, ‘All Grants’, URL: http://ritaallen.org/all-grants/

[5] The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, ‘New Initiative Grants’ URL: http://www.arnoldfoundation.org/grants/

[6] Wilson, Mark (2015). ‘Digital Democracy, a Cal Poly project, aims to open up government’ Published by: The Tribune URL: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/article39539928.html

[7] Digital Democracy, California Polytechnic State University ‘About Us’ URL: https://www.digitaldemocracy.org/about-digital-democracy

[8] Aiden McGloin (2017), ‘Cal Poly Digital Democracy project holds government officials accountable’, Published by: Mustang News. URL: http://mustangnews.net/cal-poly-open-government-program-begins-working-s...

[9] Garfield, Leanna (2017), ‘A new site lets you find videos of almost anything your local lawmakers have said’, Published by: The Business Insider, URL: http://uk.businessinsider.com/digital-democracy-government-video-2017-3

[10] Julie Simon, Theo Bass, Victoria Boelman and Geoff Mulgan (2007), ‘Digital Democracy: the tools transforming political engagement’. pp. 7Published by: Nesta. URL: https://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/digital_democracy.pdf

[11] Carl Guardino (2015), ‘Returning power to the people through technology’, Published by East Bay Times, URL: http://www.eastbaytimes.com/2015

[12] Statista ‘Internet usage in the United States – Statistics and Facts’. URL: https://www.statista.com/topics/2237/internet-usage-in-the-united-states/

[13] Van Dijk, Jan A.G.M. (2013) Published by L. Snellen & W. Van de Donk ‘Public Administration in the Information Age: revisited’ IOS – Press. pp.1 https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/vandijk/research/itv/itv_plaatje/Digital%2...

[14] ‘People Have Mixed Hopes About Whether Open Data Will Improve Things’, (Source: Nov – Dec 2014). Published by: Pew Research Center in April 2015 URL: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/21/open-government-data/pi_2015-04-21...

[15] Horrigan B. John and Rainie, Lee (2015) ‘Americans’ Views on Open Government Data’, Published by: Pew Research Center. URL: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/21/open-government-data/

External Links

Digital Democracy Website: https://www.digitaldemocracy.org/

Project on the IATPP Website: http://www.iatpp.calpoly.edu/projects/digitaldemocracy.asp

Case Data

Location

Geolocation: 
CA
United States
California US
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Purpose

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History

Start Date: 
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
End Date: 
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Ongoing: 
Yes
Number of Meeting Days: 
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Process

Facilitation?: 
No
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Facetoface, Online or Both: 
Online
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Organizers

Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation
Who was primarily responsible for organizing the initiative?: 
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Type of Organizing Entity: 
Other: Organizing Entity: 
Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy
California Polytechnic University
Who else supported the initiative? : 
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Resources

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