My Journey down the Govrn Rabbit Hole 🐇
A journey not just for the ages, but one that you could go on too.
Let me start by saying this: I’ve reached the other side of the rabbit hole. And I couldn't be more excited that I slipped down it in the beginning.
Yup, I just went down an unexpected journey. If you had told me that this is where I would end up when I started this journey, I wouldn’t have believed you. But what I’m feeling, more than anything else, is hopeful.
After spending the past couple of months venturing down the rabbit hole of policy at the intersection of tech, I’ve realized using open source to center politics on actual people is actually not that crazy at all.
This is my fall into the world of Open Source Politics and Decentralized Governance.
My fall into Govrn.
As someone with a policy background who has tried (and failed) to learn how to code more than once, learning about open source at first felt intimidating. Nonetheless, technology is already transforming government systems at a rapid pace so it made sense to lean into the unknown and pick up some new skills along the way.
As it turns out, the real learning curve of open source isn’t technical at all. It’s the discovery that comes by allowing yourself to believe in crazy solutions to old problems. Beyond more efficient and accessible public services, this technology provides an opportunity to drastically enhance the role of citizens in public decision-making.
Falling into Wonderland
Wrapping up my public policy program during a global pandemic, the world became a case study of governments and citizens being pushed to engage almost entirely online. Up until recently, traditional channels such as canvassing, town halls, and political campaigns had not changed substantially despite a wider variety of tools. Conversely, citizens’ interest to be involved in politics and social activism has shifted as a result of greater access to information and technology. Harnessing open source to create platforms that enable channels where governments and citizens can build initiatives together seems like a valid approach; the challenge is getting policymakers on board when it comes to incorporating an unfamiliar tool. This is what channeled me to Govrn.
Govrn was that one project that stood out because it recognized the systemic change needed to bring more people into politics. A startup flipping the model in which constituents define their views, demand outcomes for their community, and hold politicians accountable to the agenda set by their voters? Yeah, that’s good in theory, but would never work in practice. Why scrape a status quo that is working well enough.
But the more I listened, the crazier the status quo sounded.
The concept is simple: people decide what issues their politicians act upon and make contributions specific to the initiatives or campaigns that uphold the work to address them. Overly ambitious by design, Gorvn challenged many of my ideas on citizens becoming everyday politicians and the compromise made by policymakers to stay ahead of the curve without becoming technology experts.
As it turns out, open-source policymaking is actually not far from exploring wonderland.
Possibilities are endless, but you have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone.
Open Source Politics 101
The open-source movement has been around for a while, yet its application in my field of work (policy making) is still rather new.
Much like Alice, navigating this space was as daunting as it was exciting. It was full of unknowns, but even more so, challenged even more of my previously assumed “knowns”.
When I first came across the concept, the idea of openness simply translated into “access” and “transparency”. A call to make “everything available to everyone” with the internet as a medium. Further research throughout my time as a fellow at Govrn offered a new perspective: that organizations and people could use open-source tools such as Github to gather information, share resources, and more importantly, create policy together.
Open source provides an opportunity to create shared knowledge without barriers to entry and spread ownership across collaborators, an obstacle we have yet to overcome in the way we create, analyze, and evaluate not only policy but campaign agendas and even laws.
The idea of a system that both gives everyone permission to provide input, and yet is more efficient sounds counterintuitive. But it is exactly that distribution of power and agency that Govrn believes will inspire people to become more involved in policymaking, and consequently will redefine the way we do politics.
I agreed that the distribution of power and agency was good for policy making… So why couldn’t this approach work? I was starting to shift from a skeptic to a believer.
Real talk: Can we take politics out of politics?
The critical part of my journey at Govrn was realizing that these tools already existed, but to put them in the hands of governments, politicians, and citizens alike requires more than a handful of enthusiastic policy analysts - it requires systemic change.
It requires giving people agency over the decisions that directly impact their livelihood, holding politicians accountable to the needs of their community, and overall pressing governments to acknowledge the shifting role of the citizen.
It took me a while to reconcile how a startup, or even just an idea, could enable the future of policymaking, and that’s the issue. There isn’t a single path towards more openness in government but a movement of people who believe politicians, community leaders, researchers, passionate citizens, and technologists can create change from the same “room”.
That changing the status quo doesn’t require a particular set of technical skills at all.
That all it needs is for us to stop shying away from the ideas that seem crazy. To stop using “yes that’s a great idea in theory, but it’ll never work in practice.”
That to change the status quo, all it needs is to follow Alice’s example and venture down the rabbit hole of possibility. Once you reach your destination, you’ll realize that the ideas were never that crazy in the first place.