newDemocracy Meets the US State Department

The US State Department conducts an International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) which enables a small group of Australian citizens (MPs and people like us!) to have an experience with academics, government representatives, NGOs, United Nations staff and elected representatives in the United States. It’s a way to share ideas and make contacts, and is generously funded entirely by the US Government. Iain Walker as the Executive Director of NDF is a guest of the State Department from March 22nd through April 12th and he’ll be posting updates here whenever he’s allowed to pause and draw breath.

Sunday March 23 – The Washington Tour

Our hosts took us through the sights of chilly Washington, and it is every inch a city designed to intimidate and impress the foreign visitor. From the grandeur of The Mall where Martin Luther King delivered the iconic speech of the civil rights movement, to the White House and the immense government buildings – it conveys its sense of power. But one item stood out above all others – the inscription at the memorial to Thomas Jefferson which stands in direct view from the White House. It simply reads “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

It prompted me to question the extent to which the strictures of our electoral system are a tyranny over the free minds of our elected representatives. There are too many topics where the capacity for free expression and discourse is limited by the pressing requirement for re-election: can our MPs every just say what they think? An improved democratic process must aim to change that.


Monday March 24 – The First Congressman

After an introductory lecture from Marilyn Lashley (Assoc. Prof. Dept of Political Science at Howard University) our evening was spent attending a talk at Georgetown University from Congressman Chris Van Hollen (Democrat from Maryland). It was interesting to hear the Congressman lay out three areas where there was pressing need for reform to the US democratic model.

The first point he outlined was the need for transparency in donor funding to advocacy organisations that are political actors in all but name. These PACs are now raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars with no requirement to disclose the source of their funding. With a direct link between advertising and political success, the spectre of being able to “buy democracy” has edged too close to the line – however reform is not having an easy path.

His second point related to reforms to campaign funding as a whole – noting it seemed largely out of control. However, this will prove harder to resolve than the point above!

Finally, he outlined that the practice of allowing State Legislatures to draw the boundaries for the Federal seats to Congress has moved to the point where the democratic contest is limited. Boundaries are drawn in odd shapes to render congressional seats to safe that only 4% of seats in any given Congressional election (so 16 or so of the 435!) actually are at risk of changing hands come the very regular elections. To the outside observer, the fact that all 435 members of the House of Representatives face election every 2 years (!) seemed farcical. We may complain of a perpetual election campaign, but in a two year cycle that is literally true.


Tuesday March 25

Our first meeting of the day gave us an overview of the Federal system from Dr Diane Lowenthal from American University and we delved deeper into the merits of having 83,000 elected officials in the US. One impact is “ballot fatigue” when even those voters who have gone to the effort to turn out to vote simply stop completing all the ballots (for school board, local representative, and dogcatcher). If democracy is simply the expression and action upon the general will of the people, our mechanism for finding that general will needs to be open to innovation.

It’s notable to reflect on the pros and cons of a system where, in her words, “every decision impacts on re-election”. In an environment where no voter can gain a full understanding of all these decisions one has to question whether that is a good thing.

We were also provided with a generous session at the State Department to build an understanding of how they work and their priorities around the world. It stood out to me to hear of the emphasis to get “youth voices into foreign policy dialogue”. Genuine dialogue at the requisite level of depth is going to require the trial of new approaches and this is now an opened door.


Tuesday April 1st – From The Amazing Carnegie Corporation to the United Nations

Andrew Carnegie’s fortune from US Steel is arguably the largest ever amassed, and remains the largest ever applied for charitable purposes. It has been used to found over 2500 libraries and institutions ranging from The Brookings Institution to Sesame Street – and even to funding litigations to “right wrongs” from civil rights to campaign funding. They have a substantial fund for US Democracy Programs as well as being active in the spread of democracy internationally.

Later that day I was fortunate to spend some time with a team at the United Nations with the challenging task of bringing peace, stability and freedom to some of the world’s most challenging places – from Cote D’Ivoire to Sudan to Myanmar. We discussed the difficulty of how a nation can identify its own path and how they choose to organise and make trusted public decisions – and the role that deliberation using everyday people could play to make this more effective in the tricky environments within which the UN is involved.


Wednesday April 2nd – Participatory Budgeting New York

A great chance to catch up with Josh Lerner and Meg Wade to compare notes. Another example of an organisation with a similar goal to NDF who are seeking to improve how we make trusted public decisions by engaging more everyday people and making it genuine by asking elected representatives to delegate budgetary authority.

Their approach is a little different to our own, and one where we can learn by trialling different processes: they work on discretionary budgets held by elected representatives, with measures proposed by the community going to a public vote. The 52 Assemblymen typically have a ringfenced amount they can spend at will, and it is this funding which is devolved – typically $2m per ward, so enough to get some substantial works done. Take a look at the ballot below to see what the some active citizens discussed and costed before putting to a vote of any interested citizen. NDF focus on assisting politicians to resolve hard tradeoff areas in budgets, but a discretionary area such as this also warrants trials in Australia.


Friday April 4th – NAACP & Storymapping

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was founded in the 1920s to pursue civil rights and has become a highly influential force in political advocacy in the United States.

Our conversation strayed into how democracy can end up being “too much of a good thing” and impede progress for all groups in a community. Do we really want to vote for School Boards who become highly political and take decisions with one eye (perhaps two!) on re-election? Do we want to end up with 220 elected municipalities covering just over 1m people as occurs here in St Louis? St Louis is reforming its assemlby to come down from 28 wards to 14 so the acknowledgement of a need for reform is clearly shared across party lines.

We met later with Edie Bernard of the Pentimento Storymapping Project, which is simply explained as giving community members a video camera to tell their local story in a few minutes and putting the results as pins on a Google Map of the local area. The sense of place this achieved stood out as applicable to some of the challenges government faces in urban planning reforms: the clarity with which the message was conveyed (by amateurs, not film makers) exceeded any written submission to a council or development authority that I have seen – and they were successful at getting far beyond interest groups to a diverse array of local people.


Monday April 7th – Political Action Committees

“PACs” have become a controversial topic in the US news as the preferred vehicle to raise and spend unlimited funds outside the guidelines of political parties. We met with the proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment ( as a reminder of the traditional advocacy purpose of a PAC rather than its more controversial modern incarnation. Its startling, and shows how direct democracy is a business in itself.

The Vote ERA PAC seeks an amendment to the State Constitution (Oregon) to prohibit rights being denied or abridged on account of sex, and is part of a wider long running movement to achieve this in the Federal Constitution. Rather than solely focussing on the issue, it was the mechanics of the campaign that warrant consideration: it requires a petition of 8% of the population to get this on the ballot given the lack of appetite from legislators to endorse it. At the lowest level, this requires the collection of 116,000 signatures – but allowing for error rates, duplication and non-enrolled (thus invalid) voters, then the campaign requires nearer 180,000 signatures to be successful and get themselves on the ballot – an epic task!

Unsurprisingly, this has led to the rise of canvassers who will secure these signatures on behalf of a PAC – but costing up to $9 per valid signature. While this PAC will not pay for signatures, it is notable the power of scale to block ideas that are lightly funded. Notably, the state will only check samples (using a 95% confidence level), opening the door for why they don’t allow the sampling to occur first so that a smaller sample could consider the issue in detail rather than relying on the brute force of large numbers.


Tuesday April 8th – View from the State Assembly

I was fortunate to meet with Alissa Keny-Guyer (D) who spoke candidly – and very much without partisanship – about her experiences in trying to make progress through the assembly with key bills. It is noticeable that across borders it is our legislators who are the most keen on reforms to remove and constrict the power of donors to get involved in the passage of legislation – a statement that would surprise many voters who question the motives of our elected representatives, but which remains a very consistent sentiment in Australia as well.


Wednesday April 9th – Healthy Democracy

Healthy Democracy have achieved more than any other democratic reform organisation around the world: in 2011 securing a dominant bi-partisan vote (43-17 in the House, and 30-0 in the Senate) to embed a deliberative process to reform the money-skewed ballot initiative process. While they have a range of metrics that point to their success one stands out above all others: the number of initiatives being put to voters fell from a peak of 20 to 12 last election. The clear message is that those who sought to sell an idea to voters through 15 second advertisements became aware that they would have a lower chance of success if citizens looked at the proposed reform in detail and were given time and an opportunity to question the proponents. Running the gauntlet of a vote is easier than running through the close attention of just 24 Citizen Jury members.

Notably, they run their deliberative process intensively – bringing together a randomly selected group of citizens for a single week in a city hotel. This gives them an immersive experience and one which warrants trial in Australia.

How would an Australian election look if, like Oregon, we had a single page Citizen Statement applied to three significant issues from the campaign – a sample of what is provided to EVERY Oregon voter with their ballots is attached below.

Thank You

We would like to the thank the team at the US Embassy and US Consulate in Australia for nominating newDemocracy for this opportunity, and for the team at the US State Department who organised and hosted the program. Notably Bill St John and Charle Kellett from the Cultural Affairs Bureau who put immense time into ensuring the ability for ideas to be shared across borders, and fostering cross-border work in coming years.






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