Book of the Week: Wiki Government

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

Beth Noveck, professor of law and director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School, famous for her successful Peer to Patent project, has published a new book about the prospects for collaborative democracy.

In this first presentation, we present the overview of the book. Next wednesday will carry the excerpt on collaborative democracy.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

“Wiki Government shows how to bring innovation to government. In explaining how to enhance political institutions with the power of networks, it offers a fundamental rethinking of democracy in the digital age. Collaborative democracy-government of the people, by the people, for the people-is an old dream. Today, Wiki Government shows how technology can make that dream a reality. In this thought-provoking book, Beth Simone Noveck illustrates how collaborative democracy strengthens public decisionmaking by connecting the power of the many to the work of the few. Equally important, she provides a step-by-step demonstration of how collaborative democracy can be designed, opening policymaking to greater participation. “Wiki Government” tells the story behind one of the most dramatic public sector innovations in recent years – inviting the public to participate in the patent examination process. Patent examiners usually work in secret, cut off from essential information and racing against the clock to master arcane technical claims. The Peer-to-Patent project radically transformed this process by allowing anyone with Internet access to collaborate with the agency in reviewing patent applications. “Wiki Government” describes how a far-flung team of technologists, lawyers, and policymakers pried open a tradition-bound agency’s doors. Noveck explains how she brought both fiercely competitive companies and risk-averse bureaucrats on board. She discusses the design challenges the team faced in creating software to distill online collaboration into useful expertise, not just rants or raves. And she explains how law, policy, and technology can be revamped to help government work in more open and participatory ways in a wide range of policy arenas, including education and the environment.”

Author Beth Noveck summarizes the contents in more detail in her introduction:

“This book offers a rethinking of the meaning of participatory democracy in the digital age. At the same time, it is a how-to guide for bringing about collaborative democracy and the practices of collaborative governance using the tools of law, policy, and technology. Practical experience with the Peer-to-Patent program enhances understanding of the core problem: a failure to grasp the changing nature of expertise in the digital age and the resulting misconception of both effective institutional practices and legitimate democratic theory.

Chapter 2 argues that the “single point of failure” in government can be transformed through new mechanisms for obtaining expertise. Decisionmaking is currently organized around the notion that the government official knows best. In reality, agencies make decisions every day without access to the best information or the time to make sense of the information they have. Citizen participation traditionally focuses on deliberation but, in the Internet age, it will not be as successful as collaboration in remedying the information deficit. The broader mandate is to use technology to upend the outdated theory of institutional expertise and replace it with collaborative practices for gathering and evaluating information and transforming raw data into useful knowledge.

Chapters 3 and 4 tell the story of the Peer-to-Patent pilot.

Chapter 3 illustrates the single-point-of-failure problem by showcasing the crisis of patent quality—the problem to which Peer-to-Patent was designed to respond. Whether or not one knows or cares about patents—though there is plenty of reason to do both—the information deficit faced by the Patent Office is paradigmatic of the practices of centralized decisionmaking in government. The aim in chapter 3 is therefore to provide a detailed account of how the Patent Office gets—or fails to get—the information it needs to make important decisions and to detail the consequences of this failure.

Chapter 4 begins to explain how to move toward a collaborative solution to the governance challenge described in chapter 3. It describes the development of the Peer-to-Patent website—what it is, how it worked, and why it worked—to illustrate the process through which innovative participatory practices can be designed and adopted. The story of Peer-to-Patent begins with an in-depth exploration of the innovative role of technology design in making citizen participation practices manageable. Instead of designing for deliberation—pure talk—I argue for what I term visual deliberation, namely, ways of using the computer screen to mirror the work of participating groups back to themselves so that they can organize and function as networked publics. Creative uses of the interface through which people interact with the computer and therefore with each other also make information manageable and intelligible and reduce the problem of information overload. From talking about the design of the collaborative project, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the collaborative design process that led to the creation of the project.

Perhaps the most important chapters of the book are those in part 3, “Thinking in Wiki.” These chapters generalize from the Peer-to-Patent project to online participation in other arenas of governance.

Chapter 5 focuses on the role of information in collaboration, arguing for a government information policy that enables the collection and distribution of information in ways that engender participation. Data can become more useful as a result of group participation. Groups not only can help to visualize information in graphic formats that make it more intelligible but these graphical formats can also focus the work on solving problems. As a baseline condition, information must be transparent— accessible, searchable, and usable—to lend itself to collaboration.

Chapter 6 examines the history of citizen collaboration and its future. This chapter situates Peer-to-Patent against the backdrop of transparency and participation legislation and regulation. The aim is to uncover why— despite past attempts to introduce innovative and participatory practices into administration, including those that exploit Internet technology— agencies have not always had access to enough information nor have citizens enjoyed meaningful participation in government decisionmaking.

Chapter 7 asks what will produce such innovations in government. Peer-to-Patent was brokered by an outside organization that pushed for this citizen participation effort, building on the momentum of web 2.0 technologies. But to transform the culture of government and create lasting change, there has to be evangelism from within as well as without. This should be the job of the senior leadership, such as the new role of U.S. chief technology officer created by President Obama. Senior government management should use the bully pulpit to exhort public institutions to put collaborative democracy into effect. The CTO can be the champion of participatory innovations to connect institutions to public expertise. I offer examples of such innovations, including the policy wiki and the citizen jury, which might produce more open, and ultimately more legitimate, ways for government to work.

Finally, chapter 8 offers lessons for designing better practices to engage the public in government. These lessons apply both to information- gathering projects like Peer-to-Patent and to policy wikis, citizen juries, online brainstorming, and other innovations in participation. Collectively, these lessons form the basis of a new design science of government. Designing for democracy requires law, technology, and policy to create more effective institutions. Such a design approach has the potential to enhance the legitimacy of government; it also empowers participants. Ordinary citizens have more to offer than voting or talking. They can contribute their expertise and, in so doing, realize the opportunity to be powerful.

This book speaks to three audiences: those interested in the story of Peer-to-Patent as a lesson in patent reform; those aficionados of web 2.0 interested in a specific case study of how to apply collaboration in the government arena; and government reformers interested in improving decisionmaking. The chapters of the book unwind the argument about collaborative democracy and the role of social and visual technology in enabling collaboration. Patent experts may want to skim the patent problem in chapter 3 and focus, instead, on the specifics of Peer-to- Patent in chapter 4 and subsequent chapters that describe the lessons learned. Web 2.0 enthusiasts who already “get” collaboration but do not know the government context can skim the book’s justification, articulated in chapter 2, and dig right into the story of Peer-to-Patent (chapters 3 and 4) and the challenge of collaboration in government (chapters 5 through 8). Government reformers with no particular patent bent will want to read the opening chapters 1 and 2 carefully to understand the distinction between deliberation and collaboration and then focus on the lessons of Peer-to-Patent in chapters 5 to 8.

Peer-to-Patent is an experiment. But that’s the point: the best strategy is to try something: to see what works to bring about a more engaged citizenry. Peer-to-Patent demonstrates a way to solicit help from those with know-how, passion, and enthusiasm.”

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