Investigative journalism – It is said that journalism’s creed is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The people in power need to know they’re being watched and need to be called on various things that they’re doing that are not good or not popular. Investigative journalism does that. It will dig to find out what’s going on behind the scenes and make it public.
Some bloggers are like investigative journalists – albeit mostly of more mixed quality than professional journalists. But there are lots of people who are watching over what’s going on, commenting on it online and revealing threads of what needs to be known. So the so-called “blogosphere” is another way we collectively watch over government.
Citizen Ballot Initiatives – In some locations citizens can craft a new law that they want to see passed and then gather enough support to get it on the ballot and actually voted on. This “ballot initiative” process has been abused by special interests enough that in Oregon there is now an institution called “Citizens Initiative Review” which convenes a randomly selected panel of voters who look at a ballot initiative and talk to people who are for it and against it, studying it in detail and reporting their findings to the voters. This more secure ballot initiative process can be used to watch over and correct government violations of popular will, as well as warn voters of really bad ballot initiatives.
Quality of life indicators – These are measurements of quality of life, often designed through community dialogue. A community says that these things are what’s important to them, that this is what they think makes their lives good, and therefore when these statistics are going down it suggests that the government is not doing its job right. So this is a form of statistical feedback to support people in watching over how their government and other forces in the community are doing.
Government transparency – Transparency means having the government make clear everything it is doing in all its parts. All this information is made publicly available. Ideally even every piece of legislation would be online for people to comment on and organize around. In Argentina there is a citizens group which has some software called DemocracyOS where all the legislation that is being proposed in the Buenos Aires city government is made available on people’s cell phones. They can look at it and discuss it and comment on it and organize around it. So that’s a very tight feedback loop for existing legislation, which provides an electronic approximation of what John Gastil’s innovation described above. Of course, there is a question of who has cell phones and who doesn’t, but the idea is good.
The Freedom of Information Act in the United States allows people to petition the government to release specific information. There are only certain kinds of information the government can withhold if they are being asked. Very few citizens actually use the Freedom of Information Act. But there are many civil society organizations and journalists that request information of what’s going in the government on behalf of the general public. Among them are watchdog groups specifically organized to track what the government is doing and publicize it.
Whistleblowers are people involved in governments or corporations who have inside knowledge of wrongdoing and expose it to the public. A recent well-known example was Edward Snowden who exposed the NSA’s spying on American citizens. Usually whistleblowers get in trouble because the government doesn’t like what they’ve done, for obvious reasons. So there are people who defend whistleblowers.
So there is a whole system of extracting information from the government and trying to enable that system of revealing government information to continue and be effective.
Cell phones – Many citizens are taking videos of police behavior or military behavior or corporate behavior. For example, lot of information is coming out now about how black people are being treated by police in the United States. This mistreatment and targeting has been going on for well over 100 years. But it’s being viewed more clearly now because so many people have cell phones and know how to take videos of police behavior. While they’re walking down the street if see something happening, they’ll video it, and that video goes viral and suddenly the public is all talking about it.
So these are all forms of both government-established transparency and transparency which is enforced on the government. Having deliberative activities like the Citizen Initiative Review and John Gastil’s Advisory Panels adds a measure of collective intelligence and wisdom into this transparency process. Many of the examples I’ve given here are ways to access what’s going on with the government without necessarily supporting actual wise oversight. But the kind of the citizen deliberative activities I talk about in other patterns provides more guidance for injecting wisdom into the process. After all, just getting the government to be totally open with everybody handling what they find out in crazy ways doesn’t necessarily move us towards a wise society. But government transparency and citizen oversight are definitely necessary ingredients. They just need to be handled well.