Steve Urquhart Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Steve Urquhart Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Representative Urquhart... Thank you for taking the time to do this
home Your website Politicopia, a wiki-based website, fosters discussions
introduction of Utah state politics and issues of the day. Political analysts have
credited Politicopia, and more broadly your leadership, for ushering in
the nation's first statewide universal school voucher law.
On May 18, you attended the Personal
Democracy Forum (PdF) conference in New
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York City. This year the theme at PdF is
"The Flattening of Politics".
How is Politicopia flattening Utah state
RSS for interviews politics?
I'm happy to hog all the credit for passage
Paul's bio and projects
of the voucher legislation, but of course there
were many, many people and organizations Urquhart's Bio
that put in great efforts. Politicopia (and
many other blogs) were helpful in passing the legislation. The Internet
is a tremendous communications tool, and passing the legislation
required a great deal of communicating.
A turning point occurred when the Chair of the State School Board
broadcast an email that vouchers would financially harm public
education. I posted his email on Politicopia, along with my rebuttal. I
pointed out that he seemed to be incorrect, and I invited him to refute
my numbers and assumptions on Politicopia. He didn't; he couldn't.
Instead, he sent me a private email, saying he looked forward to
working with me, etc. He had been called out on his misstatements.
He and other board members no longer spread financial myths about
the legislation. With that issue out of the way, we were able to focus
on more pressing concerns.
Also, it was helpful for House members to follow the commentary
on the Internet. One post on my blog, for example, had 50
comments. Two House members told me that the dialogue on
Politicopia (and Internet dialogue elsewhere) convinced them that
voting for the legislation would be the proper course. Since it passed
by one vote, that is significant.
For too long, information has been closely held by political insiders
like education unions in the case of vouchers. As Politicopia and other
online efforts develop broader media, other arguments and
perspectives will emerge. Ideally, political dialogue will become more
informed, and results will become more in line with what the people
want, instead of what the insiders want.
How did you come up with the idea for Politicopia?
In part, Politicopia is a reaction to the unhealthy amount of power
held by special interests, bureaucrats, and the media. The site
attempts to address the obstacles that keep people from participating
politically. It provides unmediated information and opportunity to weigh
What did you hope to learn at last month's PdF Conference?
Are there any particular people, projects, or ideas that piqued your
PdF offered me insights from people who've moved good ideas to
successful implementation. I want help in making unmediated
information and networked participation a reality in the political arena.
I was particularly excited to meet Tom Friedman and spending
more time with Micah Sifry.
I understand you've served in the Utah House of Representatives
for about 6 years now.. I'm sure you've come across some very
colorful people and circumstances.
What is one of your favorite stories of things that you've observed
while serving as a legislator?
Since we're talking about technology, I'll give you my favorite
legislators-know-best story. When I entered the Legislature, it was
near impossible for an average mortal to determine on the Legislative
website how a legislator had voted on an issue. When I asked
leadership about that, I was told that people would misinterpret the
Apparently, we were protecting them from themselves.
How do you think public officials and political institutions will use the
Web, say five years from now in 2012?
Do you see any big transformations on the horizon for America's
traditional political institutions like the political parties, elections,
legislatures, local boards and councils (like school boards), and
special interest groups?
As it has done with so many other enterprises, the Internet will
transform politics. Thank heavens. People will have better access to
information and greater ability to organize. Rather than send a letter
and hope an elected official responds, people will be able to mobilize
and, with that informed organization, they'll be able to force their
officials to pay attention or else.
Also, elected officials will be able to take more risks. Currently, it's
too easy for intermediaries to snuff out innovative ideas in the cradle.
When people and their officials are closer and the middlemen aren't
so free to distort the message politicians can try things without
immediately being painted strange. I think most politicians don't yet
appreciate the liberation the Internet could bring them.
One of my favorite social science books is Diffusion of Innovations
by Everett Rogers, which offered a theory on how society adopts new
ideas and technologies.
According to this theory, a person can be described as an
innovator, early adopter, early majority, late majority, or laggard, in
terms of how and when he/she accepts a new idea. (the Wikipedia
entry is pretty good too)
entry is pretty good too)
Which of these adopter categories best describes today's
In general, what are politicians' attitudes toward leveraging the Web
for political influence?
Legislators are cyclically early majority and laggards. When it
comes to elections, we're more willing to be out on the forefront to be
available to the people and to show that we get it. Once we're elected,
we're more laggards.
Unfortunately, it's a bit like, "It's
been nice talking with you. Now, "Legislators are
leave me alone to do my work; cyclically
we'll talk again next election cycle." 'early majority'
Paul DiPerna: and 'laggards'."
How did you get interested in
launching your own websites on the Web?
Were there any specific circumstances or people that influenced
Everything I've done online is in response to things that haven't
been working in some other way. When I expressed discouragement
about low attendance at town meeings to my brother-in-law, a new
media guy, he offered to help. He helped with my first static website,
my blog, and now Politicopia. When he first talked about blogs, I got
goosebumps, thinking about the possibilities for democracy. Now,
while I still think blogs are great, I'm looking for something with
Politicopia that is more interactive and fosters more of a bottom up
Can you briefly describe the Parent Choice in Education Act, and
how it recently became law? This was quite a political feat -- the first
statewide universal school voucher law ever passed in the United
The voucher bill helps parents who opt out of the public education
system pay for a portion of private school tuition. The poorer
someone is, the more money they receive in assistance. The
program is set up so that the amount of assistance is less than the
amount the state would have paid to send the child to the public
schools. So, everyone comes out ahead financially. Change is tough
for organizations. And this change is tough for the education
establishment to accept just like it was tough for the establishment to
accept an increased focus on the core curriculum and vouchers for
special needs children.
My understanding is that Utah's state school boards association
and the state teachers union are currently mounting a referendum
challenge to the Parent Choice in Education Act.
Where do things stand as of today?
The voters will decide in November whether the voucher program
should go into effect. As I've detailed at SteveU.com, the issue is
somewhat muddied by constitutional questions surrounding two
voucher bills that were passed. It is difficult to fight special interests
that can pin notes on children's shirts, but Utahns are a pretty smart
bunch. If we are able to get out the actual facts about the law, we will
Do you have any special plans or projects for the coming summer,
professionally and/or personally?
This summer I'm going to work on my tan.
That felt good to say, but actually I'm going to work too much, sleep
too little, and try to have a bit of fun with the family. With any spare
time, I'm going to work on Politicopia and try to make it a great tool for
It concerns me greatly that America is losing the ability to
collaborate on difficult political issues. When we talk, we dispel
rumors and focus on facts. Great things happen. I believe that one of
those great things is passage of the voucher bill. After years of
digging into the issue, a majority of policymakers understood it and
passed it. Children and families will benefit for generations, as a result
of that dialogue.
June 12, 2007
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