Mass Civic Engagement: Governor Deval Patrick vs. State Senator Jarrett Barrios

Fans of civic engagement should be delighted by the continuing constructive dialogues about Deval Patrick's new website. Since I posted last week, there's been a number of fixes to the site. Kate Donaghue, a Democratic party activist I know, made a post on the forum (and on Blue Mass Group) chastising anybody who was criticizing the website: "when opponents choose to focus only on the challenges, they are siding against the people and our opportunity to let our voices be heard."

I voted for Patrick at the state convention, in the primary, and in the general election. And I'll defend the people who didn't vote for him. But I'd can't say that it's very productive to accuse them of siding "against the people" and democracy. (I've asked Kate for a clarification).

Let's take ideology out of the equestion by comparing Patrick's web experience with that of another progressive in state politics: Jarrett Barrios, a State Senator who represents parts of Cambridge, Allston, Somerville, Revere, Chelsea, and Saugus.

In a state where politicans have historically came from the molds of Brahmins and Irish-Americans, Patrick and Barrios have been fresh faces. Both are non-white-males of modest means who came from outside Massachusetts, coming here by way of a Harvard scholarship. Both worked in development overseas; both became lawyers; both became electoral "firsts" in Massachusetts (first black Governor; first Latino and openly gay State Senator) through their charismatic personalities and grassroots campaigns.

The one key difference has been their political paths: Barrios was first elected at age 30, and has now been a legislator for eight years. Patrick has been governor for three months, and was beset by a series of mini-scandals as he adjusted to his new role. On March 8th, the Globe reported that he was even starting to lose faith among his fervent strong supporters in the liberal blogosphere. The story then explained: "Later this month, Patrick will relaunch his political committee and an accompanying website and plans a fund-raiser." One gets the sense that the website's launch may have been timed to change the topic.

And there's nothing wrong with an politician doing that. It's just that sometimes the topic's not the one you want to change it to. (Just ask the President of the United States.)

So let's compare their websites:

 Jarrett BarriosThe Barrios BlogDeval
OfficeState Senator Governor
First elected 1998 as State Rep2006
Present website launchedJanuary 11, 2007March 24, 2007
Media blitz for launch?No Yes
FormatMovableType Blogcustom-built PHP scripts
Stated Purpose"In this blog, I am seeking to share my thoughts on legislation and events occurring at the State House, in my district, and, on occasion, beyond these small pieces of real estate. The opinions are varied, full flowers or mere sprouts, all seeking your thoughts to help with their maturation.""It is where you can identify and present an issue that matters to you and then organize around it. The Governor keeps track of the efforts of everyone who uses and will often comment on issues generating solid amounts of support."
Purposes not directly related to civic engagementNine posts from Barrios's trip to Cuba Contribute button

Official's Leading issuesSub-prime lending practices (filed bill)
State Medical Examiner's office
Gang Violence in Boston
Explaining the 2006 Health care bill
Identity Theft (filing bill)
Property Tax Relief
Jobs and Economic Development
Overlap with leading stories in the Globe*Pretty highPretty low
Constituents' issuesnone postedGay Marriage — pro and con
Shared Parenting
Renewable energy
Chapter 70 reform (municipal funding)
Off-Road Vehicles in State Parks
Incoome Tax rollback to 5%
Issues getting more visibility than one would normally see in a website of an popular politicianHealthy recipies9/11 conspiracy/complicitness theories
Number of constituents160,000 6,350,000
Comments posted on issues144,735
CriticicsmMassachusetts "refugee" in New Hampshire complained of being blacklisted from Barrios's blog.Secretary of State Galvin pointed out privacy issues of opening up voter registration database.
Globe points out that trivial issues are getting too much attention
Inability to distinguish ayes from nays in "voting"


Readers of Civilities know me not to be a blog triumphalist– to conclude that simply because a person uses a blog it's going to solve their problems. Constructive media proscribes building the right technology tool for the job. And blogs often fall short in scaling effectively.

To that point, Senator Barrios had the right idea: start small. A politician starting a blog these days barely registers these days. Technorati reports 9 links back to the Barrios blog (6 are spam or duplicates).

More important: Barrios is directly addressing the issues of the day: gang violence, the havocs of the sub-prime lending market are front and center in the Boston Globe. Barrios also provides the text of bills he has filed, or will file.

By contrast, Governor Patrick has four statements on his policy page. They are not dated; there is no explanation of where or if they are in the legislative process. Furthermore they exist in their own universe, apart from the press releases of the governor's office, which addresses many more current issues. But what about the issue of the $11million funding for the Shannon anti-gang program? That just happens to be missing not only from Patrick's policies, but from the 391 issues posted on the popular list. (are most of the posters to he website suburbanites who aren't really touched by gang violence? Would be nice to know that).

As for the people's issues, they should be tied to concrete bills (and spending cut proposals) as well. And furthermore people should be able to vote yes or no. That would be the best way to harness the "power of the people."

Ultimately, we need new technology: we really need to do know where each of our elected officials stand on the issues that are at any stage of the legislative process: Whipster.


*Update, April 2, 2007 — What the leading issues of the day according to Globe are of course subjective. And it's true that the Globe (and Barrios) have a constituency that is more Boston-focused that the state as a whole. And it may well be that the media is more sensationalist and spotlights personal tragedy. But at least the convention of a periodical or a personal blog is that the headlines change week-by-week. has the potential risk of just growing too stale if the leading issues don't change.

On March 31st, a "J.G. of Boston" (not me, the post was signed "Juris Grauds") posted to an issue asking the Governor to support the Shannon Community Safety Initiative. Sixteen people have joined it, which does give it second place in the crime category. But it has one-tenth the "votes" of the first-place issue, No more gun control in Massachusetts (which appears to argue that no addititional gun control laws are needed).