Contest on Making Government Work: Is There An App for That?

Challengepost is hosting a contest for apps that can end partisan gridlock in the US. Whether there's an app for that depends on... you. The contest opened March 20 and submissions must be in by June 19, 2013 at 5 PM EST. There are two top prizes of  $1,000 each with a total pool of $5,000. Judging criteria include: quality of the idea, implementation of the idea and UX, and potential impact.

We assume APIs will be a big part of the event. Pulling data together in new ways has got to figure big in almost any app solution.

Got an idea? Your country needs you--bad!

According to the press release,

"People hate gridlock and want government to do something. But people also disagree about what exactly it's supposed to do — which is precisely what creates gridlock. This competition offers an opportunity to address this fundamental tension..."

Apps may be submitted in two areas: educational tools that illustrate a facet of the problem, and solution and action tools that help citizens to communicate with law makers or other citizens.

Are you skeptical that an app can break gridlock? Me too. The discussion on what is required to end it is complex and, as far as I know, is tangentially concerned with apps at best. Take one sampling, the well-known commentators on the issue include Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, co-authors of It's Even Worse than You Think: How the American Consitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Their recommendations include things like ending the filibuster in the Senate and reforming the House of Representatives. They conclude that no answer is a silver bullet.

Another commentator, Nate Silver, writes a fascinating entry on the topic in his 538 blog in the New York Times, arguing that geographic polarization of the electorate may be a key element in the increased rancor in Washington:

"Meanwhile, the differences between the parties have become so strong, and so sharply split across geographic lines, that voters may see their choice of where to live as partly reflecting a political decision. This type of voter self-sorting may contribute more to the increased polarization of Congressional districts than redistricting itself. Liberal voters may be attracted to major urban centers because of their liberal politics (more than because of the economic opportunities that they offer), while conservative ones may be repelled from them for the same reasons."

How can an app address things like ending the filibuster and geographic polarization?

But before our skepticism stalls us into the tailspin of cynicism, it's worth considering a few points. First, the best work is done on the hardest problems. Confronting gridlock with technology is a golden opportunity, if there ever was one.

Second, to the organizers' credit, they understand the limitations,

"We realize [we] can’t solve this problem with software alone, but we can harness technology to educate and empower both citizens and lawmakers to make government more transparent and effective."

That, it turns out, is directly in line with Mann and Ornstein above, who argue, according to a book description on Amazon, that,

"Until voters learn to act strategically to reward problem solving and punish obstruction, American democracy will remain in serious danger."

Teaching people to participate strategically is a well-entrenched effect of apps and social media, proven in country after country the world over. An app won't be the silver bullet to end gridlock. But what if you built a tool that helped make it possible to break the log jam? That could make history.

Need a forum to discuss or find an idea? True to the spirit of fostering democracy, Challengepost has a discussion group where you can propose solutions (or discover one), find teammates, share an existing app, or suggest relevant data. It's quite possible that the winners of the contest will be the ones who collaborate and cooperate the most.

Ready to spark a revolution to end dysfunction in our democracy? Get coding; the world awaits your work.

Be sure to read the next Government article: Civic Hackers Across the Country Will Band Together in June for National Day of Civic Hacking


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