When Billionaires come to play in your yard….

A welcome to Sean Parker’s Brigade

Welcome to our Yard

Welcome to our yard — the hitherto unglamorous space that is online citizen engagement. We try to help people to have a voice on the issues which concern them.

We, in this case, consists of a plethora of providers of online engagement software; a large cohort of consultants who can help organizations to use that software well and sometimes to build their own; and, critically, some really brave innovative professionals within traditionally conservative organizations who are prepared to stick their necks out and try something a bit different.

Our yard is buzzing with exciting new initiatives, great projects and the sense of collaboration and common endeavor. Sure we compete, but there is genuine excitement at progress because most of us in the space share a common goal. I love hanging out in our yard and pretty much anyone who shares our ideals is very welcome.

A glamorous addition to our community

Into our yard has stepped ‘Brigade’ headed by none other than Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame. You know, the guy from the ‘Social Network’ movie who removed the ‘the’ from ‘The Facebook’ over sushi. Brigade is promising to:

“Restore you the voter to the centre of democracy.”

Brigade has some very serious backers and an impressive line up of talent as one would expect. They have potential to really make a difference, not just in the US where their immediate focus seems to lie but globally, in nations perhaps less open to the US democratic ideal but where the ability to have your say means a great deal.

Not only is it a welcome development to find the big boys of Silicon Valley coming through the gate, but it opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Mixing social networks with civic engagement

I’m really excited by the involvement of Causes in the new project. They offer a really strong grass roots approach and are focused very much on empowering people. This is a great start.

There is not much given away on the Brigade website but the blog contains the following:

Brigade will serve as a tool to empower people civically, enabling any person to engage with their representatives in a way that is easy, social and enjoyable.

This I like a lot. Especially the idea of mixing elements of social networking and civic engagement which seems implied by this quote and also by Parker’s involvement.

I believe that anything that exposes people to the views of others is a positive thing for our society. There are too many corners of the web populated by people with a single opinion talking only to others who agree with them. This is serving to divide society rather than getting it to work for common goals.

If Brigade helps us not just to advocate but also to evolve our ideas and recognize the validity of other points of view then it will have made a worthy contribution.

Please don’t ignore the bureaucracy!

It’s one thing to empower citizens and connect them to their elected representatives, I’m all for that. However, to really achieve positive change, empowerment needs to achieve results and to do this, the Brigade will need to work with institutions and not just shout at them or lobby elected officials. I hope they will take the time to understand what is going on out there and to see how they can help institutions and the community to connect productively.

These institutions need to be able to hold constructive conversations with the community when they are making decisions. They are simply not equipped to absorb and respond to a constant wall of noise on any issue anyone might care to raise.

A successful Brigade will need to filter, condense and give meaning to information so that it can be prioritized, interpreted and acted on. Importantly it will need to give access to both sides of a debate. This context is critical if empowering one group of advocates is not to dis-empower another.

This is the sort of work going on in our yard at the moment, it’s being contributed to by dozens of organizations making steady progress but there is so much potential here, it’s great to have some of the stars of the tech industry turn their minds to citizen engagement.

Work with us

We don’t yet know much about the Brigade and its plans other than the clues contained in a single blog post. I have a couple of minor quibbles with what is probably just a bit of over exuberance by the marketing department.

So what’s next for Brigade? Overcoming 50 years of declining participation in democracy and feelings of powerlessness, disconnectedness and disenfranchisement by big interest groups and big money takes time, energy, and resources.

I do not see a world of declining participation. I see a world of increasing activism led by a generation of new technology. I see citizens (and non citizens) around the world able to connect, communicate and engage with institutions as never before. I also see the rapid adoption of new technologies by government organizations and by corporations who recognize the need to engage and (in some cases) the value of doing so.

This might be a relatively minor quibble but it’s an important point. There is a large body of experience to draw on and there are countless people out there both inside and outside government who have tried to help government to connect effectively with the community. It’s not that there is no desire to do this. It’s difficult and takes work, commitment and learning.

Brigade is tackling one of the last areas of our society nearly untouched by technology: civic engagement. Are you ready to commit to our mission of restoring our democracy and your place in it?

Nearly untouched by technology?

Ok so the technological innovations in citizen engagement haven’t featured much in Mashable and in the technology sector press but that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened. Actually the sector has been transformed by technology.

I point to the work of the New Democracy Foundation here in Australia who have a process which brings together the best of face to face engagement through citizen juries and uses EngagementHQ to provide an online compliment to the process.

Also the work of My Society in the UK who for many years have pushed the boundaries of citizen engagement in government with apps like ‘Fix My Street’.

The USA has also been a hotbed of innovation with companies like Mind Mixer offering innovative consultation tools. Actually the choice in this field is quite staggering and the growth is accelerating.

If Brigade use their deep pockets, technology vision, influence and undoubted talents to enhance, or build on the work that has already been done then they will have the best chance to realize their lofty goals and society will be the better for it.

Above all, thanks for coming

Above all we’re really glad to see Brigade on the scene. It will bring a long overdue spotlight to a sector where some great initiatives are taking place. This is an exciting and growing sector. Exciting not just for its commercial potential but also for enhancing the fabric of communities around the world.