Crowdsourcing Our Way to a Better Government? Maybe.

I had the privilege of engaging in a five-way Twitter debate today with some of the smartest people I know in the open government community. Clay JohnsonTom LeeAlex Howard, and Javaun Moradi are all working, in their own ways, to develop a coherent, cohesive, and inclusive vision for the future operating system of American democracy.

Despite the limitations of the medium, we managed to have a substantive conversation about the role of crowdsourcing in the process of collecting public comment on government policies and regulations. The conversation was prompted by the sharing of a blog post by Anil Dash on the White House’s recent ExpertNet initiative.

Administered by the US General Services Administration, ExpertNet is itself a crowd-run effort, intended to tap some of the web’s brightest minds in formulating the needs and functionality of a new platform for collecting citizen expertise. I had tried to engage with this platform myself, but found it frustrating and, in many ways, a solution pointed at the wrong problem. Further discussion of that topic, however, is fodder for another day.

Much more interesting to me was the philosophic debate that emerged between the players mentioned above. Quickly, we all gathered in somewhat different corners despite our shared goal of a more participatory government.

This is unsurprising, as the nature of representative democracy is a tricky one; certainly our forebears required much discussion to reach consensus.

To my mind, the critical issues came down along the following lines:

* Issues around the digital divide and around inclusion of marginalized populations in relation to new participatory government efforts.

* Whether crowdsourcing is indeed a viable or effective tool for policy planning and public input into the political process.

* Whether the government should turn to existing communities when looking for expertise, or develop its own methods of tapping expertise directly.

I’ll refrain from attributing points of view to any of the participants, as the medium of debate provides too much room for misinterpretation. The conversation has, however, been captured here.

In my view, and likely in those of my colleagues, the above issues aren’t binary. Most situations don’t break down as an ‘either/or’ but are usually much more circular in their reality. That caveat in place, I’ll do my best to articulate my opinion on each of the points above.

Regarding the digital divide, there’s no doubt that, as Tom put it, “…digital divide and education remain practical barriers to participation.” Tackling those problems goes beyond just governance reform and into the very values we hold as a society. Massive education reform has to be at the heart of any substantive efforts to improve the long-term prospects of the American experiment. All of our work at Reboot is predicated on the belief that the services of the future must be designed with the constraints of education and access in mind so they are as inclusive as possible. This is a consideration that’s not going away any time soon, so we never let ourselves or our clients forget it.

The issue of crowdsourcing is a bit woolier. It was repeatedly pointed out that crowdsourcing is often just a way of enabling a relatively limited and elite demographic of connected techies to take part in, or even take advantage of the political process. That’s true to a point, and will likely remain so for some time. And while I agree that promoting the views of certain demographics isn’t necessarily a path to improved political participation, the more people we can successfully empower — even if they are, for the time being, a select population — the less centralized and more distributed power will become.

Finally, and perhaps most directly related to the issue of the White House’s ExpertNet effort, is whether the government should even be in the business of creating new platforms for citizen engagement rather than going to the places that citizens are already gathering (Quora was repeatedly mentioned). In my view, it’s imperative that the government embrace new methods of engaging with citizens. But to be truly transformed in their function, government agencies require platforms, mechanisms, and processes that are customized to the unique cultural, political, and policy constraints that define the way each bureaucracy creates and delivers critical services. This isn’t to say that government-specific platforms should not be closely integrated with existing communities; rather, it’s just to emphasize that if these new methods of engagement aren’t closely mapped to the workflows and process that government bodies depend on operationally, they will never be effectively utilized.

Why erect barriers to adoption? User experience designers aim to optimize experience for end-users to ensure that products can gain usage, and ultimately loyalty. We need to have government experience designers to optimize the experience for the users within government agencies trying to affect change. By optimizing their experience in using these new engagement platforms, it ensures they will try, use, and ultimately stick with these platforms.

This point also raises what may have been my biggest overall frustration with ExpertNet. I applaud the effort to create a new platform for civic participation. But I found it lacking in discussion on how this eventual tool would fit into the organizational workflows that would ultimately take advantage of it. As great as new engagement tools can be, if they’re not fulfilling, enabling, or expanding on an identifiable organizational need, their capacity for change is ultimately limited.

All of these conversations are important and ones we need to continue. Creating future forms of government won’t be easy or straightforward. It took several thousand years to create the forms of representational government that are most prevalent in the West today. I’ll grant that our new tools are likely to demand a faster pace of change, but the evolution is still going to come in bits and spurts. Only by working together to define an operational vision of participatory government can a community of practitioners and concerned citizens help define what our future society looks like in terms of how power is allocated, resources are distributed, and decisions are made. Here at Reboot, we hope to be a part of that conversation in the years ahead. To that end, we’ll also have some exciting news next week about an opportunity to do just that.

Futher reading.