In 2015, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former State Senator Sam Blakeslee (R) launched a new project called Digital Democracy. The project was aimed at improving the transparency of policymaking in California, but now, thanks to the work of a group of students at Cal Poly and several donors, the project will be expanding to other states. The first of those expansion states is New York.
Digital Democracy users can search the data available through the tool and find hearing information, legislative documents, and other public datasets on issues that matter to them. In California, the tool is already popular with citizen groups, journalists and non-profits. For the expansion, Senator Blakeslee tells CivSource, that the project will start with some of the biggest states first. In addition to New York, Florida and Texas are in the immediate pipeline. Digital Democracy sites for those states are expected to launch in 2018. The Texas and Florida projects will be supported by The Texas Tribune and Politifact — giving one third of all citizens in the United States easy and timely access to information about what happens in the chambers of their state governments.
“Large states like California and New York have economies that are bigger than some European countries,” Senator Blakeslee said. “Issues being debated in these state legislatures are debated with the full force of any federal issue and indeed often become national issues down the line. It is important that we provide as much transparency as we can around those debates.”
The New York project took about a year to develop and was done with help from students as well as the NAACP New York State Conference. The NAACP New York State Conference is the first organization to adopt the Digital Democracy platform and make its technology and information fully available on their own website. According to Senator Blakeslee, in the future, groups like New York’s NAACP chapter will have access to a white label version of Digital Democracy that they can use on their own sites in order to engage directly with members and share information.
Digital Democracy is also working to streamline it’s operations so that when they add a new state they won’t necessarily have to bring on a platoon of new researchers. As the founder of Cal Poly’s Institute of Advanced Technology and Public Policy, Senator Blakeslee adds that the student work will continue to be based at the university. Digital Democracy will also be working with select technology partners to aid the streamlining effort.
Beyond the Digital Democracy project, Senator Blakeslee is also working with high profile investor and philanthropist Charlie Munger to further open data and government transparency as issues. The two men were proponents of a recently passed amendment to Californa’s state constitution that requires the legislature to offer video and print transcripts of legislative meetings.
“Citizens have a right to know and understand what is being debated in their state legislatures,” Senator Blakeslee said. “Since leaving politics I have been passionate about finding new ways of improving transparency not just in California but nationally.”