technology

Five Questions With: The Uncaucus

Posted 3/17/10

With the race for mayor of Providence wide open thanks to incumbent David N. Cicilline’s decision to run for Congress instead, a group of seven familiar faces from the local technology and design community – Andy Cutler, Owen Johnson, Clay Rockefeller, Allan Tear, Christine Malecki West, John West and Melissa Withers – has joined together to form a new group they call the Uncaucus to vet candidates. They explained the project in an e-mail interview with Providence Business News.

PBN: So what exactly is the Uncaucus?

JOHNSON: The Uncaucus is an ongoing dialogue about the qualities that we, as citizens and residents, want our leadership and our government to have. The Uncaucus is striving to build consensus around these qualities through open and positive discussion involving as many individuals as possible. The idea is to inspire the next generation of civic engagement in Providence and to direct that engagement in a way that will guide current and future leaders.

PBN: Who came up with the idea?

WEST and ROCKEFELLER: Uncaucus grew out of a movement that's taking shape across the country loosely called “Government 2.0.” The idea is to apply Web 2.0 social-networking techniques to make government more open, transparent and effective.

We were energized when Mayor Cicilline announced that he would not be running for another mayoral term. That morning, and in the days following, a group of us gathered, in person and virtually, to pursue an idea that we have valued for a long time – the idea that more citizens need to get involved in the electoral process and advocate for open government. Within 48 hours we were up and running.

Uncaucus is our attempt to keep the City of Providence moving forward and to see if we can include more voices in the conversation about our future. It’s an important time and we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

PBN: Do you see this as a way of taking on other political actors, or more as an additional voice in the process?

WITHERS: Traditional representational democracy – where we essentially elect someone to office and then step back from government altogether – creates a cycle of passive disengagement that is hard to break. The idea that voting is the pinnacle of civic engagement is really shortsighted: as citizens we can do so much more if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and put some skin in the game.

Look at the community organizers who make great things happen in Providence. Whether it’s those who are helping kids or those who get the geeks jazzed about building businesses here, it’s the same story: no one elected them and they don’t wait for government to give them permission to do good, high-value things.

Yes, we need to hire the right person to be our next mayor. No question. We also desperately need to deepen the field and bring more people into the conversation. I hope that the Uncaucus will do that. I also hope that it will remind people that they have more than the power to vote. They have the power to act.

PBN: What role, if any, do you think the state’s entrepreneurs can and should play in politics?

CUTLER and TEAR: Rhode Island's entrepreneurial community has a significant role to play in state politics; however, until this point, it has been sorely underleveraged.

Within this community are highly skilled individuals who can access large networks of individuals in a moment’s notice. Therein lies the opportunity. In the case of the Uncaucus, our relatively small group developed a campaign concept, launched a Web site (in both English and Spanish), reached out to the broader community, established a mobile technology platform, and established a telephone hotline where any citizen in any neighborhood can call and leave a message for the candidates, all within days of the idea’s genesis. It demonstrates that if you have the right people at the table, you can accomplish almost anything, which is what makes Providence a unique place to live and work.

Yet many of our peers have not been a part of the traditional political process, not represented by lobbyists, and not asked to participate. We are not alone – far too many citizens in the city are not engaged or recognized. But instead of talking about our disappointment in the political process, we decided to act and create a new way for civil and substantive dialogue to take place via the Uncaucus. Our notion is that citizen engagement and substantive dialogue are key elements we wanted to see infused into this Mayoral election and carried into the next administration. In a relatively short time, the Uncaucus is becoming a national case study for community organizing, the mobilization of talent, and new ways to engage citizenry in an important discussion.

PBN: What sort of response have you gotten so far?

MALECKI WEST: There are a lot of people out there who are really energized to see this fresh approach. Many of them are jumping into conversations on our Web site and Facebook page, and some are just tuning in to see what happens, which is an important first step. The most gratifying response has been to hear of some (unannounced, yet serious) contenders who were not considering a run for mayor until they starting thinking about our challenge to find the best person for the job. Our roster of participants is growing daily, and word is spreading very quickly through both traditional media and social networking.

Some interesting issues have already surfaced, such as why a candidate’s ability to raise a lot of money is the first qualification that gets discussed, and why attorneys seem to dominate the roster of candidates. We expect controversy and some heated exchanges, but so far it has been a respectful and informed discussion. It supports our proposition that the electorate is capable of a meaningful and nuanced debate based on real issues. •

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