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Citizen Relationship Management

With voter apathy growing, it's time for a new CRM: citizen relationship management

The most important IT issue in this election isn't digital voting machines or offshoring. The paramount issue is how government should seize on information and communication technologies to reengage a profoundly alienated electorate.

More than 100 million voters won't vote in this election. It's not as if they'll actively boycott the process, they just can't be bothered. Casting a ballot doesn't even register on their radar screens.

Cynicism is growing, and high apathy among young voters doesn't bode well for the future.

Changing Times

Political parties should use this campaign to map out how they would use new technologies to reconfigure and revitalize the ailing democratic process. Voting is only one piece of the puzzle. Just as astute businesses use digital technologies to build much deeper relationships with stakeholders such as customers and employees, governments could use similar techniques to involve citizens on an ongoing basis, help us learn from each other, take responsibility for our communities and country, and influence elected officials and vice versa.

What a refreshing change it would be. Since the country was founded, politicians and the bureaucracy have viewed citizens as being external to affairs of state. It's as if government mounts an elaborate multiyear theater production with us as the audience. At the end, all we can do is vote thumbs up or down. Too many thumbs down, and a new cast of characters troops on stage.

When the system was designed, this made sense. Our ancestors didn't have the education, time, resources, or communication tools to participate in the governing process. They elected politicians to go to Washington and state capitals on their behalf, learn the issues, have reasoned debates, and pass legislation. The system functioned because public policy issues were simple and evolved slowly.

But much has changed. First, many unforeseen events happen between elections, and governments can't credibly claim to have a clear mandate to deal with them. Second, elections are a blunt instrument. Each of us can only cast one ballot even though we might feel each party makes legitimate points on a range of issues.

But worst of all, the current one-way system — we vote, they rule — squanders the enormous wisdom and insight we citizens could contribute to tackling today's complex public policy issues. Governments can't possibly have all the answers in-house. As the government's theater production progresses, we might object to the way the plot is unfolding. We might have constructive criticism on the dialog, staging, lighting, or ticket prices. We might think some actors are unfairly trying to hog the limelight. Sometimes, we might even want to get onstage briefly ourselves and help build a prop or say a few words.

Digital Brainstorming

Consider the idea of digital brainstorming, which would bring together policy officials and citizens to have real-time, moderated online brainstorming sessions to identify new policy issues or needs. The President would say "We're going to have a national discussion on affordable healthcare. It starts on Monday and will last two weeks. Anyone can participate though the special Web site we've established. If you don't have Internet access, I've partnered with corporations, schools, libraries, community computing centers, and shopping malls to give you access. We'll post background papers. We'll organize the discussion by region and also by interest group. I've recruited 1,000 university students to monitor the conversations and provide me with the best ideas. I'll participate daily and give my views. At the end of the process, we'll explore our options for further action. Perhaps we'll have some straw votes on issues. It's my hope that we'll have a good discussion that will bring up some important insights. For sure, we'll all learn from each other."

Other digital tools could include:

  • Online citizen panels. Randomly chosen citizens could serve as policy advisers on issues. They'd use the Web to hear evidence, ask questions, and deliberate to arrive at recommendations. Permanent advisory bodies could consist of a cross-section of citizens who use the Web to debate ideas and share information.
  • Deliberative polling. This polling gives citizens the resources to learn about and reflect upon the issues in a collaborative and deliberative fashion. It would combine small group discussions on the Internet with scientific random sampling to contribute more informed public input in policy-making than instant polling can provide.
  • Virtual question periods. Political representatives would be available online for regular question-and-answer periods with their constituents.
  • Scenario planning. Scenarios with simulation and modeling software could project future policy needs and help understand long-term consequences of decisions. Politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens could assess the potential impacts on a range of factors ranging from health to the environment to the economy.

These tools have nothing in common with the goofy "direct democracy" schemes where we would all vote online after watching the evening news. People don't have the time, inclination, or expertise to become well informed on all issues. We want reasoned opinion, not just any opinion.

We'll pay a heavy price if voter apathy continues unchecked. Citizens must believe their involvement in the democratic process is meaningful and warrants their time and energy. That way, they're more likely to respect the decisions the government makes. We have new digital tools at our disposal, and we'd be foolhardy not to use them.

Don Tapscott is the author of 10 books about technology and society, most recently (with David Ticoll) The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business (Free Press, 2003).

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