Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field

by / November 30, 1996
This fall, attendees to the Eastern Region Government Technology conference in Albany, N.Y., were treated to The Fort Orange, a 200-year-old men's club -- now open to women -- with unlimited cigar smoking and a ghost which supposedly resides in one of the upstairs rooms.

The Fort Orange was the site of the "Best of the Web" contest awards. Before the dinner, attendees mustered in a lounge area with wooden floors, heavy draperies, antique furniture and chandeliers with electric bulbs that began to look curiously like candles. Outside in the dusk, historical signs noted George Washington's trips down the Mohawk Valley, and The King's Highway.

As the darkness settled in, perhaps it was the resident ghost playing tricks, but powdered wigs began to appear on the assembled guests. The clatter of scabbards punctuated the clink of glasses and the creak of floorboards. Laughter and cigar smoke mingled.

Under the electric lights, men and women discussed computers and networks, government problems and preseason football. Then the lights flickered and dimmed becoming candles, and the talk turned to the newly formed government, the vast unexplored territories to the west, and the tremendous potential and opportunity that lay ahead. The King's Highway was just a wagon track disappearing into the forest.

Despite the vast differences in technologies, in population and the passage of 200 years, there were similarities between the two assemblies. The terrain and some of the buildings remained, but the most striking similarity was that both groups -- the officers talking beneath the candles and the government officials beneath the electric bulbs -- discussed the challenges of the present in the context of an abiding confidence in the future.

To the group under the candles, the American revolution was a personal experience. Many fought the British to "secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." To the men and women under the electric lights, the revolution was a civics lesson, perhaps still in their hearts and on their minds, giving purpose to their government activities.

The tools of the "candle group" were the horse, sword, musket and -- most powerful of all -- the quill. In a stroke of genius, a Constitution formalized the core agreements of a nation.

The tools of the "electric light group" were the telephone, automobile, airplane and information technology -- the tool whose use they had convened to discuss and study. Their mission, like that of the earlier group, was "To establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity."

But while the intent may be similar, the scope of governance has changed.

The American system of representative government -- said by author James Burke to be the result of "bad roads" -- is under severe strain. Retired Commander-in-Chief George Washington took four days to travel the 150 miles to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Later, to solve the problems of bad roads and immense distances, local representatives were elected to carry citizens' wishes to the capital.

But representing the American public has become an increasingly difficult task. In 1792, President Washington approved the first census-based apportionment plan for the House, which called for a ratio of one representative for every 33,000 constituents. Today, there is one representative for every 570,000 constituents. And, while our population grew, our society became increasingly diverse and difficult to represent.

The 1996 elections are over. President Clinton is back in the White House, the Republicans remain in control of Congress, and the business of government goes on. However, if government is to represent the public, it must do a better job than that evidenced in the recent campaigns.

We still have an electoral college disconnected from the popular vote of the people. We have elected officials representing the financial interests of campaign contributors, and we have yet to pass campaign finance reform, or even mandate Internet posting of campaign contributions. We have sound bytes, button-pushing and name recognition as a substitute for intelligence. Political contempt for the intelligence of the voter is a time-honored American tradition. Politicians herd the voters with the lash of ugly words and simplistic attack ads.

We have two major parties which controlled access to the national debates, excluding a candidate who garnered 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 campaign. It is foolish to think that two parties can encompass the spectacular diversity of millions of American citizens, and yet splitting the electoral vote among more than two candidates increases the possibility that the selection of the president will be thrown into the House of Representatives.

The founders of our country worried about demagogues leading the populace astray, and inserted supposedly "level-headed" representatives as a buffer to the popular will. However, if those representatives cease to embody the best of our nature, the technology for a direct participatory democracy -- continual polling and instant electronic referenda -- awaits. Is that a good idea? If we don't reform this process, and restore confidence in our representatives, we may find out.