Book of the Week (2): Towards collaborative democracy

Book: Wiki Government. How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Beth Noveck. Brookings Institution Press, 2009

An excerpt from Beth Noveck’s book, which we presented last Monday.

Beth starts by outlining the lessons of her own Peer to Patent project, which point to the need to generalize the practice of collaborative democracy.

1. Lessons from the Peer to Patent project:

“The implications of Peer-to-Patent reach far beyond the field of intellectual property. Far from being unique to the patent system, the lessons we learned about soliciting far-flung, self-identifying expertise to improve government decisionmaking can be applied to a broad range of environmental, educational, and other policy domains. The technology and social processes that drive Peer-to-Patent can be used to solicit participation in governance on the basis of professional expertise, or local context and experience, or willingness to do research and hard work.

For example, the web could be used to structure participation by local communities in EPA decisionmaking about clean air and water. Technology could connect experts in every level of government to one another to solve problems more effectively and more efficiently. An online network of independent university experts—an online brain trust—could be created to advise. Citizen juries could be appointed to oversee the work of every cabinet official or agency head and generate greater accountability. Local groups could even be empowered to spend agency money, report back on how they addressed specific problems, and thereby become eligible for more funding. So much innovation is still possible.

Public conversation about the power of networks is already proliferating. Books such as the Starfish and the Spider, Here Comes Everyone, Crowdsourcing, and Momentum describe ordinary people coming together into caucuses mediated by technology to promote change. But while the new literature includes inspirational stories about the power of social networking tools, there is still a need for deep and serious thinking about how to apply what is learned about technology to the betterment of public policymaking—or how, in other words, to enhance political institutions with the power of networks. Connecting the power of the many to the work of the few in government has little precedent, making it difficult to visualize its potential.

As the NYU media scholar and critic Jay Rosen comments,

“Crowdsourcing will not create any genuinely new things unless people know what is being asked of them.”

Users of Wikipedia know what to do because they understand what it means to write an entry for an encyclopedia. People share a common image of that collective goal. But despite the growing popularity of online collaboration, experience is fairly limited when it comes to participating in government decisionmaking.

There are new networking tools available to go from Wikipedia to “Wikilaw.” The first government authority to start a blog was the Transportation Safety Authority, and that wasn’t until 2008!33 While Silicon Valley and Route 128 develop increasingly powerful tools to connect people, policymakers downplay the role of technology in governance.

They have not come to grips with the disruption created by this new way of working. This should not come as a surprise. Few institutions readily invite their own obsolescence. The Encyclopaedia Britannica did not create Wikipedia. The New York Times did not create Craigslist classifieds. Record companies did not create the MySpace social networking and music-sharing site. Existing institutions lack clear incentives to change their own business plans. More important, they lack a blueprint for doing so. Were it only a matter of more technology and a faster Internet, collaborative governance would have come to government long ago.

Collaborative democracy is a new approach for using technology to improve outcomes by soliciting expertise (in which expertise is defined broadly to include both scientific knowledge and popular experience) from self-selected peers working together in groups in open networks.

By lending their expertise and enthusiasm, volunteer experts can augment the know-how of full-time professionals and coordinate their own strategies. By taking advantage of technology’s cost savings, hierarchies can be transformed into collaborative knowledge ecosystems and radically change the culture of government from one of centralized expertise to one in which the public and private sector—organizations and individuals— solve social problems collectively.

The private sector has been quicker than government to recognize that making better decisions requires looking beyond institutionalized centers of expertise. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams have chronicled this phenomenon in the private sector in Wikinomics. In this IBM 2006 global study that asked chief executive officers where they looked for fresh ideas, they cited clients, business partners, and employees far more than their research and development labs. IBM conducts digital brainstorming sessions known as World Jams, which allow IBM employees across the globe to make and refine proposals collaboratively for the improvement of the company. Far from being gimmicky online happenings, World Jams are taken so seriously by the blue chip company that the CEO of IBM established a $100 million fund to implement the ten best resulting ideas.

A handful of employees in an institution—any institution—cannot possess as much information as the many dispersed individuals who make up a field. This is why Eli Lilly set up Innocentive Inc. to farm out problems from life sciences companies to a network of 160,000 “solvers.” One company recently paid a $1 million bounty for the solution to a complex chemistry problem. The solver was not even a scientist but a lawyer with a knack for chemistry. He answered the intractable question in fewer than four hours! In technology, this insight has been popularized as Joy’s law: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”39 This quip, attributed to Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, pinpoints the core problem faced by all organizations in an exploding information ecosystem, including government: most knowledge lies outside the boundaries of the institution.

Collaboration is distinct from the concept of crowdsourcing. Jeff Howe, an editor at Wired magazine, coined the term crowdsourcing to describe the burgeoning phenomenon of “taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.” (He does use Peer-to-Patent as his one public sector example.)

But whereas crowdsourcing generally refers to aggregating the responses of individuals across a network, collaborative democracy aspires to the kind of intentional peer production and shared group effort of Wikipedia, in which volunteers sign up to write encyclopedia entries as a group. While crowdsourcing activities like prediction markets aggregate individual preferences, collaboration implies more robust and diverse coordinating structures that enable people to divvy up tasks and roles. Collaboration does not so much imply throwing people at a problem as coordinating the right people in different roles. Role differentiation not only helps to structure work done across a distance, it also conveys the sense of working as a team. Unlike peer production, which includes purely civic, bottom-up activities, collaborative democracy emphasizes shared work by a government institution and a network of participants.

Collaborative participation is the “smoke-filled aquarium”— to borrow an overheard coinage—that combines open-source volunteer participation with government’s central coordination, issue framing, and bully pulpit.”

2. Towards Collaborative Democracy

“In Wiki Government, the case for a collaborative vision of democratic theory is bolstered by three arguments woven through the book: collaboration as a distinct form of democratic participation, visual deliberation, and egalitarian self-selection.

First, collaboration is a crucial but not well understood claim of democratic practice. There is a belief that the public does not possess as much expertise as people in government. Furthermore, the technology has not previously existed to make collaboration possible on a large scale. These spurious assumptions have produced an anemic conception of participatory democracy. Participation has generally referred to once-a-year voting or to community deliberation, in which neighbors engage in civil dialogue and public opinion formation on a small scale. New social and visual technologies (sometimes referred to as web 2.0) are demonstrating that people are knowledgeable about everything from cancer to software and that, when given the opportunity to come together on a network and in groups, they can be effective at solving problems (not only deliberating about them). We must therefore distinguish between deliberation and collaboration as forms of participatory practice (which we’ll do more of in chapter 2). Wiki Government explores many examples of ordinary people joining together to do extraordinary things coordinated via the Internet. Peer-to-Patent is a paradigmatic case of database programmers and wind-farming experts working with patent examining professionals to make a better decision.

Second, the medium matters. To enable collaboration at scale requires designing the practices to make participation manageable and useful and then enabling those practices by means of technology. While the forms of participation will differ when information gathering or priority setting or data analysis is required, the technology should always be designed to reflect the work of the group back to itself so that people know which role they can assume and which tasks to accomplish. This second insight is what I term visual deliberation. In traditional deliberative exercises, strict procedures for who can talk govern the public conversation. But collaboration depends, instead, on having tools that convey the structure and rules of any given collaborative practice. This kind of social mirroring can be communicated through software. Peer-to-Patent uses visualizations to communicate the work flow by which information goes from the government institution to the public and back again. The website helps to convey what it means to review a patent application. It exploits rating and reputation techniques that help each group work together as a group, even across a distance. Hence, designing new democratic institutions also depends on designing the appropriate collaborative practices and embedding that design in software.

Third, collaboration is a form of democratic participation that is egalitarian— but egalitarian in a different way than the traditional understanding of the term. Typically, mass participation like voting is thought of as being quite democratic because everyone can participate in the same way. By contrast, Peer-to-Patent is not mass participation. It demands highly technical expertise. Successful participation depends upon the participant’s interest in and knowledge of patents. If Peer-to- Patent were the only example of collaborative participation, it would not be egalitarian. But Peer-to-Patent multiplied by a thousand would be more institutionally diverse and complex. If the patent expert and the doctor and the teacher each has a vehicle for engagement, contexts would be created in which they each uniquely possess expertise and derive meaning.

In other words, people do not have to participate in the same exercise. One person may want to work on Peer-to-Patent, another may want to get involved in health care debates. One person may want to work on energy policy; another may want to organize a corps of energy “scouts” to go door-to-door and help neighbors evaluate their energy usage. The ability to self-select to participate in the arena of one’s choosing is what makes collaborative democracy egalitarian. A person may be an expert on wetlands because she possesses professional credentialing. Another person may be an expert on wetlands because she lives near one. Perhaps it is a level of know-how or the enthusiasm to commit more time that generates status in other domains. For every project, there is a different kind of expertise, which could be sought. Experts will flock to those opportunities that exploit their intelligence. In this choice lies the equality of opportunity.

What does collaborative democracy look like in practice? In the old way of working, the bureaucrat might decide to repair a bridge in response to an opinion poll or vote that randomly obtains feedback. Or the bureaucrat might publish a fully developed plan to repair the bridge, ostensibly soliciting comment in response to a notice of proposed regulation, attracting participation by formal interest groups and lobbyists but not ordinary citizens, who can never hope to match the power and influence of corporate interests. Community groups might use the web to lobby for bridge repair but with no greater opportunity to get involved in detailed decisions. The government or a nongovernmental organization (NGO) might organize a face-to-face deliberative discussion about the bridge and hope to use the event to trigger a newspaper article that will influence the decision. A similar online discussion may or may not attract attention.

Under a collaborative strategy, the bureaucrat establishes the process, then frames and asks the questions that will get targeted information from bridge users (the truck driver, the commuter), from an engineer, and from the informed enthusiast. The public can contribute evidence and data to help inform specific decisions, analyze data once gathered, and share in the work of editing, drafting, and implementing policies. Alternatively, if officials articulate the priority of bridge safety, they might spur private sector businesses, nonprofits, and individuals to develop their own strategies, such as organizing a volunteer corps of bridge safety inspectors who log their work on a shared website. Citizens are no longer talking about the process: they are the process.

The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for those with expertise about a problem) to engage. There is a Plum Book, which lists government jobs, and there is a Prune Book, which lists the toughest management positions. The pluot is supposed to be the sweetest variety of plum (or plum plus apricot). Yet there is no Pluot Book cataloging opportunities for part-time participation in government! When participatory democracy is defined to include diverse strategies for collaboration, when these thousands of opportunities to self-select come to light, a Pluot Book may well be needed.”

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