The Open Lobby

The Open Lobby aims to expose the workings of our government, making them more transparent and more accessible to a broad range of people. To this end, we have two projects:

Project: Knowledge
Develop easily accessible information resources for Oregonians on their system of government, its policies, its agencies, and other mechanisms that have widespread relevance.
Project: Influence
Use this information to develop policy proposals, through a consensus-oriented process, which can then be taken up by the legislature, ballot initiative, etc.

Modern internet-based technology will be a core foundation for the project, both as a lasting record and in order to support in-person meetings and projects. Since accessibility and transparency are the core values, we will not require people to use an unfamiliar Internet-based tool in order to participate.

The Open Lobby

(main project page)

Get involved!

(Contribute to this project's success!)


(Questions? Comments?)

Time-lapse of a Wikipedia article's evolution

Collective consciousness in action: this brief video shows the early evolution of Wikipedia's article on the Virginia Tech massacre.

Background and general goals

In America's formative days, communication technology as we know it today was nonexistent. A major news story might take days to reach the general public, and active, ongoing communication among large and dispersed groups was utterly impossible.

Actively-engaged citizens were considered essential to the success of our young nation. In light of the technological limitations of the time, representative democracy – in which elected leaders represent their constituents' desires in policy making – was the best available option.

But today, the infrastructure of our world-famous democracy is outdated and crumbling. Many citizens are disengaged – a state often mistaken for apathy – and the ability to influence lawmaking is something we read about in civics texts, more than we experience it in daily life. The devastating consequences of this sad state of affairs are all around us.

The deliberative and negotiation processes that lead to lawmaking have become enormously complex, and lack in transparency. Even today, the public is not aware of who met with Dick Cheney to craft the Bush administration's energy policy, nor do we typically know what developers or out-of-state business lobbyists are bending our City Commissioners' ears. To get a basic understanding of a law (either an existing one, or a proposed draft) pretty much requires a law degree and heaps of free time. The idea that we're all able to shape the laws that govern us is true in only the most technical sense.

Today, modern communication technologies have altered our daily lives significantly: the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, email, and now wikis, blogs, and extensive online databases.

But as technology advances, our government seems to become ever less accessible, ever less comprehensible. A recent example: an unelected staff worker of U.S. Senator Arlen Specter inserted language into the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization without, apparently, the knowledge of his boss or anybody else in that body. To anyone familiar with word processors and the "track changes" feature, such a gaffe is almost inconceivable. But outside of government, collaboration and collective decision-making are thriving as never before.

Of course, government tries to adapt to modern technology, but the results range from the embarrassing to the criminal: electronic voting machines that "count" votes according to the whims of their programmers, web sites full of unsearchable PDFs, the need to visit four separate web sites to find information that should be linked together.

Directly changing government to adapt to modern technology would be an enormous project. Thankfully, it is also an unnecessary one; there's an easier path to the same goal. As flawed as our government may be, it's designed to respond, on some level, to the will of the people. If we can design and use a system that allows us to develop broad and strong consensus around policy changes, and can communicate our wishes effectively to existing government bodies, they will respond.

It's what advocacy organizations have been doing from the beginning; but we can do it better. Building a solid foundation, and holding transparency and accessibility as core values, we can begin to assess our collective will. We can educate ourselves and our neighbors about important issues, and make good and relevant decisions about how they should be addressed.

We have voices, typing fingers, hearts, and minds. We have friends and contacts, and we are capable of negotiating with adversaries. We also have access to some truly incredible technology.

We can reclaim our democracy. If we don't want it to disappear, we must.

Wiki successes

Systems that are based on new technology – specifically, wiki-based systems – have proven successful beyond expectation.

Wikipedia, an encyclopedia built entirely by volunteers, has yielded some excellent articles. Articles on topics that are deeply controversial, where one might reasonably expect passionate disagreement to prevent meaningful consensus, are often quite good. This results from people talking through the controversial issues, and reaching a consensus on a neutral description that informs the reader, while remaining compatible with various points of view.

But Wikipedia is one example of many. New Zealand set up a wiki-based web site to capture the public's views on what a new Policing Act might look like; by all reports (see "New Zealand Launches Wiki To Help Citizens Draft New Law" and "Police wiki lets you write the law"), it yielded innovative ideas, and was a resounding success.

Please see Wiki success stories for specific examples of how various groups have used wiki-based sites to refine information and/or to be more effective and productive.

Project: Knowledge

Trailer for documentary about Wikipedia

Wikipedia: why it's important.

The first of two projects will be to develop objective, factual, and analytical materials about how society operates. For instance: how taxes are structured, how the curriculum in our public schools is developed, what agencies oversee what social services.

Factual information on how our society operates is vital to any citizen seeking meaningful interaction with a democratic government. How is Oregon's tax system structured, and how do we compare to other states? Who makes decisions about public school curriculum?

Many advocacy organizations work hard to track this sort of information, but the fruits of their research is often not available to the public. When it is, an organization's conflict of interest – whether apparent or real – might call any information it publishes into question. Or, it may not be written to be accessible to a wide audience, requiring specialized knowledge or training.

The rapid growth of Wikipedia shows the power of a large community, organized around a simple principle (like writing an encyclopedia), to develop a vast and highly-organized compendium of information. Oregon, in particular, has an extraordinary community of editors, illustrating how some loosely-organized collaboration, sprinkled with a little good humor, can deliver even more impressive results. (Wikipedia's Oregon portal is a good place to get a feel for the articles this project has produced.) But ultimately, Wikipedia's mission is too broad to include, for instance, highly-detailed information about various proposed electoral reforms, or the campaign strategies used around an issue like gay marriage.

Drawing on Wikipedia as an inspiration, a resource, and hopefully even a source for volunteers, this component of the project will aim to provide the sort of information that might help you put a story about the proposed removal of dams on the Klamath River into historical context, or understand why a single police shooting might mean much more than it would appear to the community it affects. (Wikipedia has developed some good guidelines around reliable sources, verifiability, neutral point of view, and other issues.)

This project will probably rely on a wiki-based web site, but other platforms for more structured information (like online databases or may be more appropriate for some content. See an example on DabbleDB, a database of (some) Oregon ballot measures. It's also possible that producing pamphlets or other printed media will be desirable.

Existing resources:

Possible projects:

  • Complete the Oregon Ballot Measure database on DabbleDB
  • Move Oregon Revised Statutes and/or Constitution to wiki, and start linking things up (when were certain laws added, by what process…etc.)
  • Overview of taxation in Oregon

Project: Influence

Use an online, collaborative process to develop policy recommendations. Generate broad consensus using an inclusive process. Lobby relevant legislative body(s) (Portland City Council, Oregon Legislative Assembly, etc.) to adopt policy recommendations.

This process would rely on wiki software and, most likely, Consensus Polling or some variant thereof. In-person meetings would be essential, to involve those not hip to online collaboration, and to reach new participants. (Take a Seat at the Table and The Archimedes Movement are two local organizations that have had some success with "offline" versions of this type of project.)

Possible issues

  • Get government-produced materials released into the public domain, or under a free license (current choice for first project; already underway, achievable, significant)
  • (from Jen Yocom) Make and/or implement a street naming policy for Portland!
  • (building on expertise of existing core group) Advise government on how to incorporate technology into its web sites, etc. Synergy with continued growth of group. (See video on the Get Involved page)
  • teacher tenure (Chris Beck)
  • Use an existing tax reform proposal, like that developed by Senator Ben Westlund et. al., as a starting point. Discuss its basic assumptions, get to know the research used to support it, and revise as necessary. (That plan seems pretty good, and a lot of work went into it, but it's unlikely to go anywhere without help from outside the Legislature.)

Side benefits

  • Introducing people to wiki technology; see [1] and [2] for some ideas about incorporating Wikipedia into education.

Links of interest

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