Can Technology Make Government More Responsive?

Raise your hand if you agree with this statement: Government could not be more responsive to citizens’ needs.

Cue the crickets.

“I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my inability to get responses to letters I’d written and other efforts I made to contact my elected representatives,” Tim Yale told me about his inspiration to co-found TellDC with his wife Kristy. “I saw this frustration echoed in town hall meetings where the majority of attendees never had an opportunity to ask their questions.”

“Our goal is to reinvigorate the principles of democracy in the political process,” Yale said. Without citation, he reminisces on a gilded age in American democracy when lawmakers were responsive to constituent concerns. Getting “back to a place where legislators are truly representative of the people” is Yale’s driving goal behind TellDC. “The day that politicians listen to and implement the will of the people, I will feel that we have done our job.”

TellDC is a forum where people can pose questions to political leaders and vote up or down the questions posed by others. Those questions backed by enough site visitors are then sent on to Presidents past and present, Senators and members of the House, like Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. Below, Sanchez answers a question from Laurimar on job creation in Orange County.

One thing that puzzled me about TellDC is how the site would avoid becoming a forum for regurgitating politicians talking points, either at the hands of political hacks or thanks to the citizens enjoying the hacks’ kool-aid. As we saw in the Town Hall meetings that monopolized headlines last year, political dialog can take on discourteous tones and even be manipulated by operatives engaging in what is commonly called “astro-turfing,” or faking grassroots opinion.

A cursory review of shows that the site is not wholly dedicated to reasoned discourse. For instance, user Daniel Smith offered this missive on a thread dedicated to addressing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: “THIS IS MORE OF A STATEMENT FROM THE aMERICAN PEOPLE. YOU REBEMBER THEM DONT YOU i MEAN YOU DO WORK FOR US AND WE NEED THE OTHER 1.3 BILLION BACK FROM CRYSLER.” All spelling and emphasis his, not mine.

“We don’t filter or censor anything,” Yale told me. “This is true democracy in action.” Considering Yale’s explanation, I could not help but consider the old line comparing the production of sausages and legislation: neither is pretty to watch. About the possibility of hacks abusing the site for their own ends, Yale says, “We’ve certainly seen posts by ‘shills’ seeking to discredit someone or exploit the venue to spout propaganda, but they never get any traction. Our users aren’t interested in mud-slinging.”

Digging around TellDC quickly reveals that it is not operating under the umbrella of any non-profit entity, begging the question as to how it is funded. “The advertisers are lined up and will be activated on the new site layout,” Yale said. His goal, he maintains, remains high-minded: “I hope that TellDC continues to grow until it becomes the default conduit between voter and legislator, and we all see the changes we hope for.”

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