Civic Salt: We need courageous leaders to tackle tech

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Did you watch the live stream of the 2nd Congressional District ranked-choice voting tabulation? If you did, you may have witnessed one of the best examples of healthy civic discourse in our state.

The comments on that stream ranged from gratitude at transparency, jokes about the relatively low-tech nature of the counting, and earnest questions about the process.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the live stream, though, was the fact that it was dull. We were let into a process of meticulous and somewhat mind-numbing dedication to counting ballots.

We’re conditioned to want the pomp and flair of politics and all the jazz of election-night calls. We really want an insta-democracy when it comes to counting stuff. But that individual counting, the meticulous process? That will hopefully always be boring. And it won’t be instant. What are the real-world implications of not having a declared winner, as is the case when ranked-choice voting goes into its instant-runoff mode? We have to wait an entire week to get results.

Waiting a week doesn’t mean all that much. Not with a boring and meticulous process like this. New representatives aren’t sworn in the day after an election. Sure, the political punditry desperately wants fodder. But our civic institutions? The actual duties of our representatives? That’s not really affected by a week-long delay.

I’m frankly surprised at how many people expect insta-democracy. What gives them such confidence in our tech capabilities?

A good paper-based system is often better than a bad software system. We have many examples of bad computer systems in Maine state government. Almost exclusively so. But good systems? Ones that ensure the integrity, security, and user intent of a process? Those are nearly absent from our government services.

And that’s a shame. Counting ballots using an Excel spreadsheet we can live with. Contrary to Bruce Poliquin’s pathetic attempts to undermine the results of the CD2 election, the software used in ranked-choice voting tabulations is not programmed by nefarious artificial intelligence forces inside a black box. It’s actually quite basic and secure, and it’s probably fine that it’s this way, especially given privacy concerns about our elections.

But it’s time our elected officials and government leaders recognize the fact that the way most Maine residents interact with our government is online. The way we obtain licenses, pay fees, gain access to services, file taxes, look up legislation, and do most of the things one might possibly want to do with a government, is online. And it’s those services we should be focusing on. Those are in a sorry state of disrepair.

Taxpayers pay for this service. As customers, we don’t really have many other options. And adding a veneer of a private company (like if you’d want to file your taxes using TurboTax, for instance) only adds additional cost to the user.

What if, instead, that service were well designed to begin with?

Thankfully, there are models for how this can work. The federal government has the U.S. Digital Service, an agency that tackles this problem of poor service delivery. It designs and implements better services inside other agencies by keeping the user – that’s us – at the heart of the product. If you’re familiar with web design and development, you know this as an agile, human-centered approach.

We can adapt this human-centered model to Maine. Maine could have its own Maine Digital Service. Government has a greater power to promote equity and accessibility than all of the too-many nonprofits in this state combined. Start-ups can only dream of the scalability that government possesses.

But this model can only work with strong partners inside government who are willing to do things differently. It’s a new administration and the perfect time to adapt. Who will have the courage to change?

Emma Burnett of Portland is a civic technology evangelist and a communications and community organizing professional. Find Emma on Twitter @elburnett.