Clay Jenkinson on Civic Participation


Clay Jenkinson, Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Government if the Raconteur for this morning's session.  Jenkinson is a Jefferson scholar and his talk is laced with references to Jefferson and Jeffersonian ideals.  What's the tie to eGovernment?  Read on...

Jenkinson tells the story of his neighbor who didn't vote because he'd read in the paper that the new voting machines would increase the time it took to fill out the ballot to 7.5 minutes.  In most ways this man is a model citizen, yet he doesn't participate in his government.  The limit of most American's civic participation is

  1. Obey law
  2. Pay taxes
  3. Vote evey two years if its not inconvenient

Jenkinson claims three gaps are at the heart of this disenfranchisement:

  1. Gap between representatives and the represented.
  2. Gap between majesty of our constitution and the poverty of our electoral process.
  3. Gap between goal of a "highly educated citizenry" and a  adequately educated citizenry. 

He characterizes the issue in terms of a surface contentment: "As long as there is some long term prospect for material comfort then I'm OK with things."  The two parties have collapsed into a single party of materialism. 

Jenkinson discusses the contrast between "Constitution" and "constitution."   The small "c" constitution is how we've put our country together.  We create this constitution, not just through civic processes, but by our everyday acts.  For example, buying an SUV is a vote for certain things: an interstate highway system, low gas prices, ineffective emissions standards, etc.    Government reacts to these votes everyday.  The California energy crisis is an example. 

Leadership brings out our best selves in the face of adversity.  Not many Americans have been asked to sacrifice anything in the aftermath of 9/11.  We haven't paid more taxes, or been asked to serve (for the most part).  We've simply reacted to the crisis with security measures and calls for broader police powers.  Jenkinson asked who our national leaders are.  Who are the Martin Luther Kings of this generation?  Who are the people waiting in the wings to lead the country.    According to Jenkins, the Jeffersonian ideal of political leadership had the following qualities:

  1. Take your ego off the table
  2. Don't thwart the will of the people
  3. Communicate your ideas clearly

As I've pondered this discussion that the ideas behind it, I have to argue again for transparency and accountability.  This is, I think, the tie in to eGovernment.  I think that a legislature, wanting to solve to ecucation problem in their jursidiction could accomplish a lot by simply requiring the near real time, online reporting of specific statistics.  Lyle Wray, who I wrote about on Sunday, talked of a report his group did on education in Minnesota that has had an impact.  Chris Warner and Earth 911 have done the same thing for water quality.  Are we left to non-profits to gather, interpret, and publish the data?  Maybe so, but government ought to make their job easier and that will probably only happen through legislative mandate.