Perhaps a better way to phrase our editorial question is: Can government leave the 18th Century? It was during the 1700s that many of the conventions and methods used by democratic government were developed and refined, and many of those were borrowed from even earlier times.
Parliamentary procedure, for example, was well established in England when the upstart United States of America declared its independence. Rules of Order were adopted to insure that debate in England’s legislature did not devolve into the use of cudgels and pistols to resolve differences between individuals or parties. As such, Rules of Order dictated that debate and decision-making happen in an orderly fashion according to a set of rules to which all members of Parliament were subject.
America’s legislature adopted a similar set of Rules of Order for similar reasons. When personal insults were answered by dueling with swords or pistols, leaning upon rules of debate was not only more efficient but saved lives.
The other hallmark of the 18th Century was speed of communication. Talk about “horsepower” — the speed of horses was about the maximum at which information flowed. It could take weeks for a message to make its way slowly across the states to the U.S. Capitol, and voting itself was a laborious and time-consuming affair. Thus the methods of government adapted themselves to the age, and in many respects we continue to operate government at the speed of a horse-drawn carriage.
A good argument can be made that government is not about doing things efficiently, but doing things right; in theory, taking a long time to deliberate and examine issues makes for sounder outcomes of decision-making. The counter-argument to this is that government today is about neither efficiency or good decision-making, but about money and power; on the face of it, considerable evidence supports this latter argument, despite its rather gloomy implications.
What could 21st Century Democratic Government look like? A number of answers arise, and these include “Transparency,” “Accountability,” and “Access.”
As to Transparency, this applies to knowledge and information; given the current power of technology, there is no reason why the public cannot know more about what goes on in city hall. Who is getting lobbied by whom about what, when? How, exactly, are the public’s dollars spent? Is staff working productively or wasting time? These questions and more can be answered if systems to collect and distribute information become routine.
Accountability means matching decisions with outcomes. Did a policy or decision produce the expected result? Did government fulfill its promises? Are funded programs or staff positions producing benefits or spinning wheels? Productivity is the watchword of private business, why not government?
Finally, Access. Nowadays virtually every record is or can be digitized. This includes volumes of historical files, council meeting minutes, resolutions and ordinances. And digital data can be searched and correlated, matched and examined. Interested in comparing every parking study ever done on the Plaza? Web-linked access to the public can provide it.
Technology cannot and should not replace the human element in government. Real people doing real jobs for good reasons cannot be digitized. But we’re way past the quill, ink, horse and buggy era, and it’s time for government to catch up.