Newark’s social media-happy mayor, Cory Booker, regularly grabs headlines for his impressively innovative uses of social media. In response to critics’ tweets, he housed residents in his own home after Hurricane Sandy, brought national attention to food stamps, and taken suggestions on how to spend Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark schools. Now that he’s exploring a widely discussed run for the U.S. Senate, can Booker’s approach to local politics work for the larger and more dysfunctional Congress? Booker tells me during an interview at SXSWi (video above) that its essential to embrace critics in national discussions and aggressively fund experimental innovation.
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The lack of access and transparency from lawmakers “creates cynicism from people in their engagement,” says Booker. “They don’t feel like their voice matters as much. And, therefore, they’re pulling back from the democratic sphere.”
Booker is right that a sense of trust and personal influence over our leaders is one of the best-known predictors of civic engagement [PDF]. He’s betting that an extraordinary level of direct engagement with voters can break the cycle of cynicism, partisanship and disinterest.
While most of Congress is on Twitter in some capacity, a quick glance at their official accounts looks like a stream of press releases.
Booker’s feed, in contrast, is far more active and reveals an interesting habit of retweeting his most virulent critics. “If I just retweet the nice things, it rings hollow after a while,” he says. “When people jump on your mistakes, don’t hide from them, let people know that you’re human, too.”
Letting critics know that congress members are fallible people with limited information might make critics more receptive to alternative perspectives and more likely to hear corrections when they propagate rumors.
Booker is also betting on the success of his new social video startup, #waywire, to help break the hold that network television has on the national political dialog.
Booker’s hypothesis depends on whether his political celebrity and active base of 1 million+ followers can catalyze a cultural change among his (potential) congressional peers.
Innovation And Believing The Market Is A Positive Force
When Zuckerberg unloaded a hefty $100 million in support of Newark schools, it gave a glimpse of how a social-media-savvy official (and close friend of the Silicon Valley elite) would direct money. “Government has got to open up and engage citizenry as partners,” says Booker. For example, he notes, New York is piloting “social impact bonds”, which challenge entrepreneurs to better solve social ills than the government can, rewarding participants with the difference in money saved.
“It’s a new way of thinking about creating innovation in a space, creating real measurable results and now government will advance — I’ll get some of the savings — but I will have brought an immeasurable benefit to society.”
With Zuckerberg’s endowment, Booker created a teacher innovation fund to “cull the best ideas” and reward the most promising solutions. Booker argues that this has crowdsourced helpful ideas on everything from curricular development to dealing with autistic students.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has allocated millions to a federal innovation fund, and highlighted programs popular with the Silicon Valley crowd, such as Teach For America and Green Dot charter schools. As Booker considers taking a position that would give him influence in how the federal purse strings are pulled, these types of experimental programs will likely get his support.
Perhaps more importantly, Washington, D.C., has a tendency to follow the lead of compelling personalities. Booker and his open-information approach to government shouldn’t be eyed as just one more vote among 535 members of Congress, but as a cultural shift in American democracy.