`Teledemocracy' Should Outlive Perot's Candidacy

By , Stuart N. Brotman, a Boston-based communications lawyer and management consultant, is a senior fellow of Northwestern University's Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies.

WITH the Ross Perot presidential candidacy now packed into a time capsule for future generations to discover or discard, the likelihood is that some of his more publicized notions of how he would change things will be buried, too.

Key among these is his "teledemocracy" proposal, a vision of Americans making political decisions electronically via telecommunications linkups. On a national basis, the scale and sheer logistics of such an operation seemed so great as to make the plan a deserving target for political pundits.

But by reducing the size of the operation and simplifying its goals, the teledemocracy idea seems to be something whose time may come sooner than we think, especially if employed imaginatively at lower levels of government.

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Democratic Gov. Barbara Roberts of Oregon, for example, already has begun something known as "The Conversation" with her state's citizens in an effort to bridge the gap between us (the voters) and them (the government). Last winter, 20 to 30 small groups of citizens assembled at different locations across Oregon.

They were hooked up by telephone with each other and with Governor Roberts - in effect, representing one very large conference call. A simultaneous one-way video link also allowed all the groups to see Roberts, but not vice versa.

Roberts felt the teleconference medium was worth trying as a way to set out her views in an in-depth way while at the same time building trust among citizens. More to the point, she sensed that something different than politics-as-usual was needed to explore how to improve state services despite a budget deficit that was projected to consume nearly 20 percent of all tax revenues.

BY utilizing these electronic meetings, Roberts was able to consult directly with 10,000 Oregonians that were randomly selected from voter registration lists. Why not simply a poll?

In typical surveys, respondents are asked to offer instant, uninformed judgments. Here, however, Roberts first raised an issue, then the groups would discuss it themselves. Each group then outlined its conclusions in writing, and each participant filled out a detailed questionnaire as well.

As a result, Roberts was able to reach a clear conclusion that people would be willing to pay for essential services, but only after the state government achieved greater efficiency. Already, she has begun to implement this consensus by cutting 4,000 state jobs, closing many state boards and commissions, and seeking a radical restructuring of taxes to make up nearly $800 million that is needed to balance the state's books.

When the electronic town meeting concept was espoused by Mr. Perot, it seemed a gimmick designed to help someone who needed to gain public attention and distinctiveness as quickly as possible. With the heat of his campaign now gone, the light of this idea should not fade away. Rather, governors and big-city mayors should consider experimenting with this format to determine its usefulness.

By connecting politicians with voters to address real problems in more direct ways, teledemocracy may emerge as something with a greater likelihood of implementation than was apparent when it was proposed by someone who had not yet earned the public's trust through the electoral process.

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