The following are remixed highlights of Beth Noveck’s talk “Transparent Government” that she gave as part of the Long Now Foundation‘s Seminars about Long-Term Thinking. As with Noveck’s original talk, these highlights, as remixed by Hassan Masum, are made available under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.5 license and originally appeared on the award-winning WorldChanging blog on August 10th.
We have been concentrating decision-making power in the hands of too few people – whether legislatures, or cabinet officials, or bureaucrats and agencies like the patent office. We construct our institutional practices around the notion that this is the best way that we have to make decisions. Even though we do not have a system of monarchy or aristocracy, we still believe in the notion of political expertise, and the notion that we have to rest power at the center.
What exacerbates this problem is that we are making long-term decisions that affect the fate of our planet. The fate of our economy, and of major systems of health care and education and environment, are being decided by people who are in short-term political positions. We have a disconnect between the long-term effect of what we do, and short-term electoral cycles.
We have to look at the ways we can reengineer our institutions to take advantage of the expertise that comes from outside the center, and bring it into the way that we make decisions. It’s understandable, if you think about the serious threats that we may face from global pandemics or international terrorism, that organizations and institutions that are built on a 19th-century conception of sovereignty, nation states, and borders don’t fit with the kind of global distributed threats that we face today. The centralization of power is driving a factionalized, disgruntled, and increasingly dissatisfied and distrusting public. Participation and power are being driven apart, and the distance between the citizen and the government that works for him is increasing.
We are coming to recognize the opportunities that are available to us if we take advantage of today’s technology – the technology that is allowing us to come together in new ways, to work together increasingly powerfully as purposive groups on the Internet. There has been discussion of the reengineering of the music industry, and the publishing industry, and the industry of journalism. Depending on who talks about it, we hear the death knell being sounded for these industries on the one hand, and the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the reinvention of these industries on the other hand. Are there ways we can reengineer our political institutions in the same ways that we are reengineering our institutions in social and economic life?
We did a small experiment along these lines with the Peer to Patent project, which seized upon the truth that each of us is an expert in something. The idea behind Peer to Patent was to take the problem of bureaucratic slowdown and inefficiency in the patent office, and to marry to this the idea of self-selected expertise. This would create a process by which people could volunteer in a self-selected way, and work together to help discover information that would help an examiner decide whether a patent truly deserve a 20-year grant of monopoly rights – whether the patent is truly non-obvious and novel as the law requires. By creating a software interface and system that would allow groups of people to self-select, come together, and review each other’s works, some of the burden would be taken off the beleaguered government examiner. By using visual interfaces to help reflect back to and explain to people clearly what it is that the examiner needs to do, and how they divide up the tasks of examining a patent, we were able to set up a project not removed from government but together with government – the first institutionalized social network in the U.S. federal government to participate in the work of decision-making.
I have a book out called Wiki Government, and the word Wiki is fun and easy to say, but Peer to Patent is not a purely Wikified process where there is a free-for-all where anybody can type and write whatever they want. Of course, Wikipedia doesn’t work this way either. Peer to Patent marries the crowdsourcing of scientific expertise with the institutionalized legal decision-making by a patent examiner to arrive at a decision. So we get the software engineers and the garage enthusiasts from all over the country saying, “Let me take a look at that invention. Have I seen anything like that before?” – and we marry that to the knowledge of the legal rules of the patent system that the examiner has, to arrive hopefully faster and better to a decision.
This process, which began as a pilot program over two years, is in the process of being transformed to an institutionalized process of the patent office, in order to bring it in-house as the way the patent office will work. What this illustrates is the opportunity to rethink not only our democratic institutions, but our democratic theory.
This is a change over the way that we have talked about participatory democracy before. A lot of people with the advent of technology said, “Great! We will move to a system of democracy, push-button voting, where we can have everybody voting in real time directly on making decisions.” But that, of course, is not sufficiently complex as a way of working. It is nice when my students can push a clicker and say “faster” or “slower,” or “louder,” or “I don’t understand” – but in the complex world of political decision-making, direct democracy is not necessarily the best way to make decisions on the basis of information and good science.
On the other hand, there is the world of deliberative democracy which long has been held up as the great ideal to which we should aspire, where neighbors talk to one another in civic and civilized discourse. The problem with deliberative democracy is that it puts all the emphasis on talk rather than action. While it is very nice to come together with one’s neighbors, if what we really have to do is make change happen and take action, we have to think not only about the inputs – not only about how we talk together – we also have to think about the outputs. How do we actually take action together? How do we solve problems? How do we get stuff done? That is what I would term “collaborative democracy”.
This is a midway point on a longer-term historical trajectory of devolving power downward and outward. From our representative institutions at the center that are supposed to represent us, but are increasingly disconnected from us, to a much more decentralized world of power. We now can choose from among thousands of different associations to which we want to contribute our time and money and attention, whether for a short or longer time. We can get involved in order to make change happen, to do stuff in the world in a kind of cosmopolitan pluralism. The Internet enables a new kind of equality of power that allows us to think about how we can reengineer our institutions – not simply for the sake of talk, but as a means to an end of achieving things in the world better, faster, and in new and creative ways to attack the complex problems that we confront.
At the basis of this is the notion – something we intuitively realize and know, which has been supported by a great deal of empirical research – that when we come together, when we share our diverse expertise, we are stronger than when we work alone. Our systems of political participation, particularly in government, have long revolved around the individual: the individual vote, the individual comment on a regulatory rule. We are now turning to looking at groups and people in organizations, to getting them involved in helping us to do our jobs better. We live in a world where we are seeing lots of this concept in our social life, but not yet in our political life to the same extent.
If we look at the response to disasters in Haiti and Chile, “crisis camps” have sprung up: groups of people that are getting together to hold hackathons in support of creating software that will help for disaster relief and recovery. Mission 4636, the emergency reporting service that allowed anyone in Haiti with a cell phone to text the number 4636 with a message that would help identify where that person actually was, relied on teams of volunteers to translate those messages from Creole into English, and help identify where people were. That combined the concept of crowdsourcing lots of distributed volunteers with “micro work”: specific tasks that people could do to help solve the tremendous problem of disaster relief and recovery. This is now growing into a whole movement that has come to be known as Crisis Commons – not just Crisis Camps that take place on weekends, but a venture that will become an institutionalized, organized effort to develop better software and tools, and better organize volunteers to help with disaster relief and recovery.
We [as Americans] got this really well in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Whether it was for Obama or for McCain, we all understood what it meant to do this kind of distributed work. We knew what it meant to phone bank or to get someone to drive to the polls, or to donate money, or to take on a task that would allow us to participate toward the common end of electing the candidate of our choice. Silicon Valley for Obama, for example, was not a campaign office set up by the center apparatus in Chicago, but was spontaneously created by volunteers in the South Bay Area, who galvanized tens of thousands of volunteers to get involved in building the tools and doing the phone banking and work to help support the campaign. This became part of the election apparatus, but grew spontaneously from outside. Obama himself has talked about this – he writes about this in The Audacity of Hope, when he talks about his visit to Google, and “…the mesmerizing image, more organic than mechanical, as if I were glimpsing the early stages of some escalating evolutionary process in which all the boundaries between men, nationality, race, religion, and wealth were rendered invisible and irrelevant. The physicist in Cambridge, the bond trader in Tokyo, the student in a remote Indian village, and the manager of a Mexico City department store were drawn into a single constant conversation – time and space giving way to a world spun entirely of light.” A very poetical rendition of that sense that we have, that oceanic feeling of being part of the network that allows us to bring about this kind of change.
So the question is, how do we take this change.org which we all know from our civic life, and import this into Washington? How do we import this into a vision of reshaping our institutions?
Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed American life in the 19th century, writes in his recollections, “I am tempted to believe that what we call necessary institutions are often no more than institutions to which we have grown accustomed, and that in matters of social constitution the field of possibilities is much more extensive than men living in their various societies are ready to imagine.” Those of us who live within the status quo have a hard time reengineering from within. Yet if we want to think about the prospects for peaceful evolution rather than bloody revolution, we have to think about how we begin to embark on the path of the Long Now of the reengineering of our institutions, in a peaceful way that will allow us to experience change at scale.
We should push ourselves to improve the way that our institutions work. We have to do it through projects enabled by technology platforms that allow us to do these projects at scale across the federal government, and we have to do it through taking the genie out of the bottle in order that we can’t put it back in. It is one thing to articulate policies, to have noble words and grand statements about the importance of openness and transparency. But from administration to administration, these policies have changed. We have to back up the words and the commitment to transparency.
The way we are bringing about change is by opening the doors and data of government – by making unprecedented openness the default, but also by doing things like posting all of the visitor logs from the White House for the first time ever. You can see and analyze who comes to visit me, and who comes to visit other people in the White House, so we know there are no secret meetings going on. That has had an effect on the way that we work, because we then come to think, “if I’m meeting with group X on one side of the political spectrum, I maybe should now meet with group Y on the other side of the political spectrum, in order to make sure I’m hearing all views.”
A video stream of a major health care summit was made available. The Sunlight Foundation was able to turn around and give readers and viewers not only the video, but the video annotated by what campaign contributions were being given to each person speaking during the summit. The number of views they got was phenomenal. As one critic put it, the Sunlight Foundation media event that took place was a smackdown to CNN in terms of the effect on transparency, because they provided an alternative to the talking heads on the cable new shows or even the talking politicians on C-span, by giving people the raw data – the chance to make up their minds for themselves as it related to the health care summit. When you can remix this raw material and reuse it to do interesting things, it becomes a powerful social tool.
Getting out information about government spending helps us to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. We specifically use the tracking of spending of recovery money as a way to bootstrap data tracking down to the state and local level. It is a very hard process, because that data is kept in very different ways: sometimes in fancy coded XML, sometimes in Excel spreadsheets, sometimes in a shoe box. Trying to track that data is hard, but we are starting the process – tracking how we spend money, as a way of opening up and ensuring government institutions are more efficient.
But high value data is more than just data that helps government accountability. It’s also data that helps us to achieve the core mission of a given agency. The U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA) has released a data set about nutritional information of the major foods that we eat. This doesn’t help us know how much money the USDA spends, but it does help us to launch an initiative with foundations and corporations to create a game that helps young people make healthier eating decisions. It allows volunteer development to mash up that data and create iPhone applications, and new people to start businesses that may generate economic value. So it is high value data because it achieves a core mission – in this case, reducing childhood obesity. The transparency and the release of raw data helps to drive a cultured participation of loving that data, of doing things with it that generate real value and meaning in people’s lives.
NASA has embraced this concept of citizen participation, and coined the term “participatory exploration.” They have been convening gatherings of professionals and NASA experts to discuss how to use new tools and create communities as a way of building participation. They began employing crowdsourcing methodologies and advocating for more programs that would engage the public, and this year in their fiscal year budget have received the modest amount of US$5 million to spend on their new participatory exploration office.
When we put the data out there and let people look at it, they find the gaps, the dragons, and the missing spaces. They see the patterns and the consequences of that data. They are ableto make the visualizations, games, and iPhone apps that turn transparency, raw data, and information into useful knowledge. In turn, we can create more informed processes of participation and policy-making, and better involve people in government decision-making.
With the release of the Open Government Directive, every government agency has created its own open government web page, where you can provide input on the open government plan. They are using the citizen engagement tool IdeaScale, which is a brainstorming platform. This is government-wide and open participation in policy-making. We have about 1200 ideas that have been posted across the federal government about how to become more open and participatory, but we need more. We need everybody, whatever their issue of interest, to come in and say “I care about seeing this data set released” or “here’s how I think the agency should be more participatory,” or “here are ways in which we could be more collaborative,” or just to get involved. It is only by getting involved that the message will get to these institutions that we want participation and transparency – that it matters to people, and, that if we build it, they will in fact come. If we build open institutions, people will come and get involved and participate.
The last prong of the agenda is collaboration. Transparency is fairly obvious, as is participation. But collaboration is not the same as participation. It’s not just how you get involved in government, but how we can in turn get challenges and ideas to people, and invite them to engage in new ways that we have never done before.
When the National Archives and Records Administration decides that it will take the Federal Register, the newspaper of our democracy that records the actions of the federal government every single day, something they used to sell for US$17,000 per subscription – when it decides that we will give it away because this is data that belongs to the American people, and is a national public asset and we shouldn’t be selling the data that has been created with taxpayer dollars – what happens is the folks from Govpulse, or Public Resource, turn around and rebuild it. The FedThread project allows me to have a conversation about what is going on in government, which we couldn’t do with the original Register. The Public Resource project creates hyperlinks within the document, so when a rule references another rule or a piece of legislation, I can understand the context of what I’m looking at. These projects were created in one week after the release of the data set. The change that we can make happen happens so quickly not just by connecting public and private sectors, but also by getting out of the way and connecting citizens to one another.
This can involve endorsing and inspiring and talking about a project like BroadbandMatch, that the NTIA has set up to allow applicants for billions of dollars in broadband grant funds to find one another. It’s a kind of “match.com” for a grant applicant to say, “I’m a small grantee and you’re a big grantee – let’s get together, and write a good application.” This idea of helping to connect citizens to citizens is one of the most important things we can and are trying to do, to move the culture shift forward.
Let me close by saying a little bit about how we have done this, and where we go from here. People have to know what is being asked of them. The better the job we can do of articulating the problem, and then explaining to people what we need their help with and how to do it, the easier it will be for people to get involved and to participate. In the same way that in the political campaign we understood what it meant to phone bank or to drive someone to the polls, or to get out the vote, or to donate money, we now similarly need to chunk the questions and work so that people can get involved in the policy-making processes – not just in elections, but in how we make decisions on an ongoing basis to effect change.
One of the simple things that we have done is to set up the Open Government Innovation Gallery, in which we post innovative ideas that are going on in government as a way to inspire other people to follow the lead. The way ideas are spreading is by people being able to see what other people are doing, and share code, best practices, and knowledge.
All this only works if we all get involved and help. What we are talking about here is not the world of participation as we have known it – a world of voting where everybody does the same thing come election time – but rather a world where you may want to love a data set from the Environmental Protection Agency, I might want to help the Department of Transportation on how we do citizen engagement, and a third person wants to participate in reviewing a patent application. We don’t all want to do the same thing. The quality of opportunity is what is important, so that everybody has a way to get involved that feeds and inspires their passion, their expertise, and their enthusiasm.
To create these kinds of open institutions is only an interim step on a much longer evolutionary trajectory – one that will devolve power downward to the people, and to the associations and organizations and groups of which we are part, in radically new ways. One that, a long time from now, won’t look like the representative government that we know now. It will come to look like something very different.
Technology is increasingly enabling ordinary people to come together across distance to do important works, whether on a local level or now at scale on a national level. Technology is enabling ordinary people to get involved in bringing their collective wisdom and talent to bear, and to change the way that we work.
This is fundamentally about power. Because power corresponds to the human ability, not just to act, but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual – it belongs to a group. And it remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we set our minds to something and we work in concert to make it happen, we are very powerful, and working together we can accomplish things that we cannot do alone. Our political institutions have to evolve to recognize this new reality of power, and to enable us to work together to solve the increasingly complex problems that we face.
In turn, we have to step up to the task. We have to demand this of our institutions, and of ourselves. We have to get involved. We have to act.
The community exists now like it never has before, with an administration that is 150 percent committed to an agenda of openness, of transparency, of participation, of collaboration – of creating this concept, of recognizing the power and the intelligence and the expertise of individuals, of trusting the American public, and of, as the president says “Bringing all hands on deck, to the problems that we face today.” What we are trying to do here is to reengineer our government over the long term – and reinvent our democracy as we know it today.