The more things change

The Internet, of all things, could revive a 200-year-old argument about

the shape of American government. In the first two decades after the passage

of the U.S. Constitution, the debate was waged between Federalists and Republicans

— and between John Adams, the second U.S. president, and Thomas Jefferson,

the third.

In short (at the risk of over-simplifying), Adams believed the nation

needed a strong central government to administer the affairs of the people,

both internally and externally, while Jefferson wanted as little government

as possible, believing a federal bureaucracy would mute the "will of the

people."

Adams' view had won out by the middle of the 20th century, if not earlier,

as the federal government increasingly took shape the way he had envisioned,

even though Jefferson's vision of democracy remains a central tenet of our

political ideology.

The Internet could shift the balance again — not by ridding the country

of two centuries of bureaucracy, but by giving people a new way of making

their voices heard. In a representative democracy, people generally express

their much vaunted "will" by electing officials, or throwing them out, based

on their political record. Between election days, there's always the option

of writing letters, making phone calls or even attending public hearings,

but most people do not have the time or resolution.

The Internet changes the dynamics by making it ridiculously easy for

people to find out what their government is doing — by reading meeting minutes,

budgets and other information online — and to make their voices heard — through e-mail, online forms and other applications, which might entice

people to speak out who otherwise never would.

In the spirit of Jefferson, it's tempting to envision a grass-roots

effort bringing about an interactive democracy in which constituents use

the Internet to exercise a direct influence on their representatives. Unfortunately,

it's not likely to happen. Interactive democracy, like representative democracy,

must come about by conscious choice. It's a practical problem, not a philosophical

one (which was how Adams approached politics). Were there a groundswell

of e-mail messages in a city of any significant size, city staff would quickly

be overwhelmed, and the "voice" of the people would be lost in its own din.

Software is now emerging to help organizations automate e-mail management

to a certain extent, but even that is not enough. Eventually, if agencies

are committed to this idea and not just playing around, they must restructure

their staffs — and probably expand them — to make it work.

Even then the volume might be overwhelming, particularly since the Internet

does not respect political boundaries, and it's not always easy to sort

out the voice of the constituents from the general clamor.

Ultimately, governments must decide if it's worth it. In this month's

magazine, we see government agencies beginning to struggle with both the

pros and cons of electronic communications.

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