Internet tools to shake up a broken political system

Imagining White House 2.0

This is the full-text of my "Imagining White House 2.0" presentation for the Personal Democracy Forum conference. 

that was just one of the marijuana questions that ranked highly on all three of obama's online forums. much of the dialogue since then has been about how to prevent this "gaming" of the system. 

well, gaming the system is nothing new. it's been happening for decades. they're called lobbyists. pundits. 501c4s. political consultants. campaign ads.

what's happening right now is regular people are finally getting a chance to game the system too. and when everyone does it, you know what that's called? 


but surely marijuana isn't one of the most important issues for average americans, right?

there's a myth about the marijuana legalization movement online. it's not driven by a large top down organization. it's real people, tired of being ignored, finding each other anywhere the internet lets them. digg. reddit. twitter. 

the marijuana question was never asked by the white house press corps, precisely because they would have been laughed at, just like the President did. but you know what happened after this town hall?

gibbs was peppered with questions about marijuana from the white house press corps. the news cycle that day was all about how marijuana is a very serious issue, not something to laugh at. the california budget office estimated that a marijuana tax would raise $1.2 billion for california... per year. and the story kept building, cnn ran a segment about how ending the entire drug war would save $77 billion dollars... per year.

The reason Obama doesn't support legalization is not because he thinks it's a bad idea, because he does support decriminalization. He just doesn't think outright legalization is politically viable.... yet.

I was pretty mad that day, this is what I wrote for the front page of the huffington post. But I'm starting to think Obama knew exactly what he was doing. He knew it would draw attention, that we'd be outraged, and that's exactly what he wanted.

After that town hall, polls showed support for legalization shot up to 40% and the new drug czar said he'd stop referring to the "war on drugs" because it's just not helping.

This is the core value open online systems can bring. They can identify good ideas that are being ignored, they can build public support, and make it possible for politicians to support them.

When the people lead, the leaders will follow.

i've been experimenting at white house 2, imagining how the white house could work if it was run completely democratically by thousands or millions of people over the internet. 

i started this right before the election, as an outside effort, not sanctioned by the white house. i knew they had all kinds of restrictions on what they could do, both legally and culturally, and it's just really hard to innovative in a bureaucracy. if i could show it working, maybe it would help make it happen.

i haven't figured it all out yet, there are many challenges, here are 7 of them, and what i've done or plan to do to fix them.

1. virtual ballot stuffing. 

The main power of the white house is to set the agenda, here are the priorities. 

On White House 2, everyone sets their own list of priorities, and they all get added up and ranked like the nielsen tv ratings.

This forces people to really think because every time you put something on your list, it means something else is pushed down. digg, for example, has unlimited voting, and as a result, it's dominated by people who can spend all day voting tens of thousands of stories.

But how do you handle someone who shows up on election day, never having registered to vote, skips right past the check in desk, hops into the voting booth, votes for some obscure candidate and no one else, then never comes back?

At WH2, there's a "sincerity" algorithm that weights a user's priorities based on several factors like whether they've verified their account, left a fake email address, or only put one thing in their list of priorities and never came back.

This doesn't stop a concerted effort to stuff the ballot by a large outside organization, but it does slow it down. 

that's great, but there's actually a very straightforward way the government can deal with virtual ballot stuffing. just use the voter rolls. senator online in australia does this.

in the u.s., voting is run by counties, so it's not in some big federal repository. a well-designed central database could still distribute authentication and management of the database down to the county level. there are also several commercial databases that sell access to the data for candidates. 

2. how do you encourage good contributions?

with economics. at wh2 we have a currency called political capital. it's shamelessly stolen from massively multiplayer online games like world of warcraft, and modeled after how political capital works in real life. famously, bush earned political capital by winning the 2004 election, and spent it trying to privatize social security. 

at wh2, you earn it by writing talking points people find helpful, bringing in new members, when people follow you, things like that. 

you can spend it buying ads for the homepage to promote your priorities, and anything that consumes someone else's attention.

now there's a positive feedback loop. i have a priority for the government, i write talking points explaining why it's important, i earn political capital if people find those helpful, and then i spend it promoting my idea on the homepage.

now imagine if candidates for office filled out their list of priorities, then people get matched up with candidates with similar priorities. why would a candidate do this? because then people can donate their political capital to the candidate, who can then spend it promoting their candidacy on the site.

like priorities, everyone understands currency, so it's a very simple tool that can be used countless ways to make the right incentives.

3. how do you find the good contributions?

Most sites, like Amazon, use voting. That's what I've use for talking points. The problem is that whatever has been around the longest ends up getting the most votes, new things don't have as much a chance. 

Here we can look to sports. Tennis has to rank thousands of people, and give newcomers some chance to rise to the top. So they have a ladder. If you beat someone higher than you on the ladder, you move up, and vice versa. 

So make finding the best content a game, put two pieces side by side in a duel, which one is better? Re-sort the list, and award political capital to the people who made the best contributions.

4. how do you build consensus with thousands of people involved?

we have a big database of all these priorities, but what if someone's got a better way to solve a problem? They can't just change the name of the priority when other people have it in their list. 

Here, we can look to the business world. You can spend some of your political capital proposing your new priority acquire another one. You can give a reason why, and then all the people affected are notified and have 48 hours to vote.

If they vote yes, they will immediately transfer over to the new priority, if they vote no, they will stay with the current one. If more than 70% voted in favor, then anyone who didn't vote, automatically transfers over, the acquisition is considered a success, and the person who proposed it gets double their pc back.

5. how do you balance competing interests? 

Here, I looked to our founding fathers. They created three branches of government as a way to provide checks and balances, to ensure none of them had too much power. But instead of Executive, Judiciary, and Legislative, we can use branches to separate different constituencies with different goals. 

This is easiest to understand in the context of a corporation. There's shareholders, who want the stock price to go up, employees who want salaries to go up, and customers who want prices to go down. You might have a hundred thousand customers, but only a couple hundred employees. It's not fair for the customers to completely dominate the agenda. Now we can track whether an idea is more important to shareholders or employees. 

On any issue, you can use this to identify different stakeholders, get better info, and make better decisions.

6. what about all those crazy ideas?

Obama is actually doing much of what he said he would, so now I have a new problem -- most of the things left at the top of the list are things he's never going to do!

Here, I'm looking to the stock market. It's possible to predict a date by letting people bet their political capital on when it will happen. Inkling Markets has software that does this. Imagine a "wisdom of the crowds" calendar for the White House agenda.

See the pattern here? It's all about money. We've failed miserably at getting money out of politics, so what if we flooded politics with money. but it's a new kind of money, one that's earned by people being better citizens, by helping their community. All of a sudden, we've got another positive feedback loop.

We've looked at many different disciplines: economics, psychology, sports, the stock market. We're not really building websites anymore, we're actually building nations. Not one nation, or even a few hundred, but millions.

7. how do we get more people involved?

make it simple, fun, and a little competitive. at white house 2, at first all you have to do is make your list of priorities. but if you want to do more, you can write talking points, start discussions, propose acquisitions with better ideas. earn political capital, buy ads.

But it's even easier than that for government. All government has to do is show people their efforts have an impact. it won't take much, people have pretty low expectations, a huge percentage of america doesn't think government can solve anything. we need a little shock and awe.

a government sanctioned petition site put together by mysociety got 10% of the UK population involved. a similar, obama approved site in the u.s. could get 20 million people in a year.

and if this doesn't happen?

this is the polihale state park in Hawaii.

to get to this beautiful beach, you have to drive 17 miles on a dirt road.. 

except you can't, because a storm last december damaged an old, but critical bridge. 

The state estimated it would cost $4 million to repair the damage, but no state govt has money right now, and even if they did, the repairs would take two years to work their way through the bureaucracy.

Which is time that Napali Kayaking simply didn't have. If this road wasn't open by May, he would lose his business. 

So a surfer, Bruce Pleas, organized volunteers and local business owners.

They pooled their money, resources, time... and they fixed the bridge. 


The technology community is building simple fun tools to make this happen online faster and on a much broader scale than you can even imagine. We're upending industry after industry, and we're going to do it to government too.

when the people lead
the leaders will follow
or become obsolete.

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Showing 3 reactions

commented 2011-02-25 18:20:03 -0800
Too bad it failed, too bad you didn’t listen to me explain to you how to make it work.
commented 2010-12-30 13:55:28 -0800
Aloha from Hawaiʻi. Thank you providing a perspective that is more interesting than anything out there in mass medi-junk.
commented 2010-12-29 07:30:44 -0800
In regard to pot, Prohibition ended because the country needed the money during the Depression. Two of my uncles began bootlegging because they couldn’t find work with unemployment hitting 25%. One became a deputy sheriff and the other started a trucking business and made gobs of money.
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