Beyond interest groups: a plan for improving policy discussion

    Weinberg sophomore Ben Armstrong is the president of the Policy Initiation (Pi) Institute, an organization in the nascent stages of developing an online policy catalog.

    Technology has undoubtedly brought constituents closer to their political representatives. As the world has flattened, legislation and fundraising have gone online. Politicians have addressed their supporters with text messages and YouTube videos. While citizens can more easily hear their representatives, politicians can just as easily tune out their constituents. Emails to your senator, even more so than letters, are swiftly returned with a boilerplate, “Thanks for your concern.” Despite the Internet revolution, the policy-making process remains slow, insular and opaque, an affair between lobbyists, think-tanks and politicians.

    The ability for citizens to influence policy in this country is limited to their involvement in interest groups, where individual voices are drowned in a sea of ideological sameness. In Republic 2.0, Cass Sunstein argues that the advent of blogging and other online politicking has only exacerbated ideological divides. The Internet has allowed partisans to connect with other partisans and avoid opposing perspectives; though a wealth of information is available, readers will only ever access a fraction of it.

    Though technology has brought news, pictures and video from around the world to our fingertips, the policies that affect us remain elusive. Bills are still hundreds of impenetrably formulaic pages; interest groups still cajole politicians behind closed doors. Our chief policymakers think that the “internets” is a “series of tubes,” while our government is facing some of the most complex and consequential policy challenges in history. Everyone should be invited to participate in the quest to find the best solution to our policy problems. Everyone has a right to know what policies are in place and what is on the table.

    I propose that current policymakers (politicians, lobbyists and think-tanks) interact with citizens through an online policy catalog. The catalog will have three components.

    First, it will include a database of policy briefs, short articles describing the purpose of a policy; the plan that the policy proposes to fulfill that purpose; and the resources needed to implement the plan. The database of briefs will be divided into policy that is on the books, on the table, and on our minds.

    Policy on the books includes current state and federal law and practice regarding health care, education, executive power, energy and the environment, foreign affairs, the economy and so on. Policy on the table summarizes ideas that have been proposed by policy professionals: politicians, interest groups and think-tanks. These ideas are separated from the policy on our minds: the policy ideas that ordinary Americans submit to the catalog.

    Op-eds will be the second component of the catalog. Each policy brief will include links to opinions in favor of and opposed to the proposed idea. Annotations may be comments submitted directly to the catalog or a piece originally published in a national newspaper, and editorial comments can include research or opinion. The comments provided by professionals will again be separated from those of lay-citizens. Editorial comments for and against each policy brief will stage a debate on the current or proposed policy. Through the discourse surrounding the idea, we will discover its strengths and weaknesses.

    The third and final element of the catalog will be a system of evaluation. The catalog’s users will be able to vote for or against any policy brief and track the most popular ideas. Of course, we do not want policy-making to become a popularity contest, nor for every policymaker to develop a Clintonian addiction to poll-watching. However, the ability to rate policies affords the American public another way to share its opinions.

    Through submitting their own ideas, opining on others and evaluating them all, citizens will have a new voice in the policy discourse. Furthermore, the current process for policy professionals will become more transparent and synthesized. State governments will be able to use the catalog as a resource to compare policy plans. Think-tanks can post their plans next to current policy and point out the differences in op-eds. Interest groups can submit their studies in support of, or opposition to, any policy proposal. The catalog can become a network for policy professionals to build upon each other’s work and ideas.

    Of course, there are many flaws to the dream scenario as I have depicted it. The policy-making process is both competitive and fractured. Think-tanks and interest groups compete for influence and money, politicians and political parties vie for popular support and countervailing ideologies complicate it all. The existence of a catalog will remedy neither bitter partisanship nor shallow competitiveness. It is unlikely to expedite the policy-making process. But it can make the process of policy formation more accessible, transparent and interactive. It is an invitation for a more open and direct democracy fueled by innovative ideas.


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