Deval Patrick’s Issues

Language/Structure | Massachusetts | Politics

I caught wind before the weekend of Governor Deval Patrick’s bid to freshen up his image by unveiling a new website.

Dan Kennedy asks why he didn’t do it on

I suppose it’s simply easier for him to post the information there. And the discussion on Blue Mass Group basically confirms this. But let’s look at the details: has user registration. It now has a feature called MyIssue which, a quick search on Google shows is an original use. It’s basically a variant of a scoreboard voting forum, where people can post ideas and virtually caucus together to push them. There’s actually been many names for this sort of technology, which is why people keep reinventing it differently. created ActionForum back in January 2000 to do just this. And despite the best of controls (requiring the use of real names), they suspended it in 2004, and again in 2006, likely indefinitely. The discovery of anti-Semitic comments— which a number of Internet sites have weathered of time– may have doomed it. Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum complained that it simply didn’t scale— citing "like 11,000 discrete suggestions." There was apparently no organizing ontology whatsoever on the site– that is to say, that a lot of items were likely duplicates.

A similar problem dogs Patrick’s MyIssue. There is tagging, but no controlled vocabulary, so many duplicate tags exist. The top issue is Equal Marriage Rights (since despite the 2004 SJC ruling, the specter of a reversing constitutional amendment still looms). But it’s also the 58th issue, where the poster in fact is casting a moral judgment (and not a policy one). And some of the registered respondents to the top issue clearly disagree with Patrick’s position. The scoreboard does not distinguish between different types of votes! Even Dick Morris’s distinguishes ayes from nays.

But wait– what is the Governor’s position? (It’s on another tab). Anybody can post an issue here. There is no feedback from the Governor’s office as to what his response is. Now, any season politico knows this, but how would the average citizen be able to figure it out? As the Globe‘s article suggested, it’s likely going to happen that lobbying groups are going mobilize their members to flood the site. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the site is going to lose all semblance to a "grassroots" organizing community.

Here’s a radical idea: why not anchor the discussions to something real– like pending legislation? The other night, a friend of mine wondered why no one’s tried "open source" legislation; another friend said that there’s no point to that, since we have a representative government. I squared the two viewpoints, explaining that there’s nothing stopping a private citizen from authoring a bill and proposing it to the legislature. Actually, there is something stopping that: workable software for doing so.

The architect of the MyIssue feature, according to the Globe and Blue Mass Group, is Charles SteelFisher (though his name only appears on a year-old press release no longer on the website, but still in Google’s cache). I met Charles in May 2005 at the State Democratic Convention, when he was the webmaster in a very budget-strapped state party office. I had articulated some of the ideas I had developed at involving oonline governance. He demurred: "We’re focused on the primary for the governorship." That was, of course, a full year before the nominating convention. I didn’t followup with SteelFisher; I didn’t need to. Since when is an election about the issues?

If history is any guide, the MyIssue page will succumb to the same sort of chaos as MoveOn’s ActionForum. If only one/one-hundredth of the energy devoting to political blogging in the last four years had been committed to improving governance and decision-suport processes. There’s been enough experiments in online issue caucusing, but we need more successful ones before they are deployed on a large scale with grand expectations.

Note: updated 3/26/07, 8:30am – I left a dangling sentence yesterday. And it appears I had missed the tagging system.  But then again it appears that a few features creeped in in the last 24 hours. Patrick’s issues are now listed for people to support. It looks like there are new options on each issue page. I wish I took screenshots. I wish that the site developers had a changelog.

Update, 11:00pm – There’s been a lot of work today: the unsinging development team appears to be updating the software as they go along. There apparently is a way to coalesce issues, if not tags. Here, for example, is the anti-gay marriage Vote on Marriage issue with 220 votes, closing in on the pro-gay marriage (and status quo) Equal Rights in Massachusetts, with 279. Blogger Steve Owens of Watertown asked Patrick on Saturday about the use of the new website, the Governor responded that "he expected that people who disagreed with him would use this tool as a way to organize for issues that he did not support." But consider the irony. The website is shaping up as a virtual vote (even though some people have attached their names to each issue with the express purpose of disagreeing with it). The anti-gay marriage force who want to "vote on marriage"– that is, move forward process to amend the constitution, which calls for a referendum after two legislative votes– are going to use this website to force a virtual referendum. With very little controls on who can register, it is likely that the more passionate side can stuff the ballot box, or give the governor a political black eye by impersonating state residents.

That’s why I’m glad I didn’t get involved.