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Three Reasons To Be Optimistic About Government

President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union was one largely focused on the desperate need for a renewed engagement in and optimism about politics. He admitted that cynicism is easy, particularly in our highly polarized times, but he didn’t let us — the citizens — off the hook:

“Whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.”

It made me think about all of the interesting efforts that I’ve run across in my reporting on solutions — called “solutions journalism” — and I wanted to share snapshots of a few of them. It’s one thing to hear the President say that we should be optimistic; it’s another to see evidence that people are actually bringing our broken government into the 21st century, both in terms of our values and our technology. Let’s call it “political entrepreneurship” and support these efforts to make government, not just function again, but inspire us.

If you’re anything like me, and you can barely remember to roll the trash cans to the curb on the right day, much less keep up with all the legislation that is pending, then you’ll be relieved to know that some of the brightest technological minds are getting really interested in how to make being an informed citizen easier. While various apps are in development or just getting warmed up and worth watching (e.g., Countable, Madison, DemocracyOS), the tried and true place to start is OpenCongress, a site where you can easily search for what’s going on with legislation that you care about in Congress. It was founded in 2007, so it has a long history of serving citizens in a very basic but critical way.

Then again, how much good does it do us to know about policy if it’s lacking in an imagination worthy of the American people? That’s where The Roosevelt Institute steps in. It involves 10,000 young people all across the country, as well as some of the nation’s most celebrated economists, to rethink social and economic policy. Their quest is to take the moment when a young person makes a connection between something she’s experienced in her own life and actual policy, and take it one step further: encouraging her to see her power to think of a better way and agitate for change. They’ve put out a wide range of interesting reports and hosted convenings, all aimed to honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wisdom that, “The government is ourselves, and not an alien power over us.”

I was a political science major. I write and care deeply about the state of our nation and issues of social justice, public education, and economic policy. I’m not a half-bad public speaker. And yet I would never consider running for office.

Run for America wants to change that. They are on a mission to get a whole new slate of young people, particularly those who would never see themselves doing so, to run for Congress in 2016. They’re looking for “solutions-first, future-focused, and innovative approaches to tackling our major national challenges.” In other words, they’re not really that turned on by the guy who was president of his high school and highly connected in the Beltway. They’re looking for the fiery young person who assumes that she doesn’t have enough privilege to do something like run for Congress, and has the ingenuity and passion for it. Doesn’t that just make you feel better about the future?

Code for America is embedding tech geeks in local governments for a year to help them hack outdated systems. The US Rebel Alliance is leveraging the love of Star Wars to get people fighting big money in politics.

Make It Work is a three-year campaign advocating for policy changes that ensure that Americans don’t have to choose between being there for family and earning a living.

The bottom line is that, despite all of the rancor, there is reason to be excited. Some of the smartest, most creative people I know have turned their attention to improving the functioning of our governments, reimagining the quality or our policy, and rewriting the stories of political leadership.

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