I recently attended an evening session at the Institute for Government where Beth Noveck was speaking. Gavin Freeguard of the IfG has done a great right-up (including linking to video of the session) but I think there’s enough in my own notes to rate a separate post.

Before I start, I’d like to mention that Ms Noveck has recently published a book called Smarter Citizens, Smarter State which goes into much more depth on these topics. I’ve bought a copy and will likely post a review when I’ve read it.

I’ve been hearing repeatedly hearing the same kind of conversation in recent months. Thanks to the internet, the relationship between the citizen and the state, particularly in the areas of participation and collaboration, is evolving quickly towards something quite new. However, no-one yet knows what it will be.

The corner of that discussion space that Ms Noveck discussed at the IfG was to do with how the government should be looking beyond its own borders for the skills and expertise it needs to decide on policy, as well as to provide options for the delivery of services.

A common theme for the evening was the desire to move away from the current model of petitions and one-way consultations into “a new social contract”. This would be based on a significantly more long-lasting model of interaction, with experts on specific issues being capable of coming together in an ad hoc manner to collaborate . This is a long way from the current model of forming advisory committees which contain a small number of carefully chosen members, who often undertake long deliberation before producing a single report.

There is no common plan for transforming government to make this the “daily way we operate” but surfacing where this is, in effect, already happening must be a good start. We could be combining that with learning from colleagues in governments all over the world who are trying this. It was suggested that the use of randomised control trials would be another great way of discovering whether this way of working improves measurable outcomes.

During the talk Ms Noveck mentioned at least two in relation to this work that I had not previous heard of. Panos Ipeirotis is an associate professor of computing who undertakes research in the business sector, often focusing on text analysis and crowdsourcing. Jurgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher specialising in communicative rationality. Even a cursory read of links from Professor Habermas’s wikipedia page strongly made me want to invest time reading his works.

A number of examples of where this kind of thinking is already taking place were described during the session. Some of these were:

  • The American government’s challenge.gov site that uses prizes to motivate citizens to contribute towards specific parts of policy issues. (At one point Ms Noveck said that challenge.gov had been created as an “end run around procurement rules”).
  • Novagob is a South American service to match the skills of civil servants to projects that they can help with
  • At the American Department of Defence a previously cancelled project aiming to collate the skills and knowledge of staff was one of the first things given priority by the new secretary of that organisation. Secretary Carter also intends to invest in people analytics.
  • The World Bank Skills Finder (blog from the UK GovLab) is another system to match people with appropriate skills related to specific issues. In this case it also includes the concept of “brokers” who are full-time staff whose role is to find people with appropriate experience.
  • Experts.gov was a proposed mechanism for similarly crowdsourcing expertise from the public in the USA. It was originally part of the American Open Government Partnership plan for 2015 until it was pointed out that their plans are currently illegal under American law. While they work to update legislation there is an interim plan to pivot the project to list skills of American civil servants.
  • The Sao Paulo local government are coordinating the payment of local IT specialists to teach civil servants about IT.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is looking into creating a “global database of skills” that people can offer to assist in times of emergency such as natural or man-made disasters.

In many of these it’s the collection of the skills of civil servants that is being targeted first. This is frequently viewed as being less challenging to government than the concept of involving potentially large numbers of citizens.

As a step towards beginning to achieve more involvement of citizens, it was pointed out that people who post high quality questions and opinions on relevant topics in existing forums are often good people to draw into these types relationships.

Having a common way to record people’s skills and expertise would also be extremely helpful. At the moment there is no simple way to validate either a person’s qualifications, experience or reputation. It was hypothesised that, over the longer term, this could be solved by a wide uptake of something similar to the open badges system.

One area that was highlighted for future research was the potential repurposing of the matching algorithms behind online dating sites to highlight people in these kind of systems who may be able to constructively contribute to issues.

One thing the talk did remind me of was previous conversations about the Parliamentary Digital Service implementing a mechanism to allow citizens to register an interest in specific topic areas so that they could then be notified if a bill, consultation or even mention in either House prompting them to become involved. My team for National Hack the Government Day 2012 won with a quick prototype for that idea and PDS continue to say they’re looking into it – despite issues with potentially having to define a national “issue” taxonomy.

Naturally there are a number of problems with setting up these new kinds of relationships. A subset of these are:

  • The extreme difficulty for civil servants to say “I don’t know”. For people whose job is to undertake research and then write policy to almost be seen to be co-authoring with people outside of government can be seen as being problematic.
  • Widespread lack of institutional capacity to undertake this kind of work. The civil service is simply not currently structured, skilled, funded or institutionally designed to do this.
  • Issues related to expectation management. We need to ensure that people understand that just because they are involved in a conversation, perhaps significantly, that doesn’t mean that they will actually influence the outcome of the discussion. Sometimes policy decisions are made due to ethical, political or circumstantial issues and no amount of quality debate will be able to change that.
  • Finding people who have valuable thing to contribute to a conversation without being overwhelmed by loud people who are driven by emotional opinions on the matter. There is often an assumption that “citizens will not engage well”. What is needed is people who can work together to come up with pragmatic measurable solutions.

Suggestions for a Stack Exchange for policy issues was quickly downplayed as objectives such as “address global climate change” aren’t granular enough for “fly by” responses. They require significant time investment to contribute meaningfully to the debate.

I was fortunate enough to be able to ask a question towards the end of the session. I asked Ms Noveck about the issue I raised in my previous blog post, Political consultation in opposition. My concern is that policy has to be defined while parties are in opposition so they can then be used as part of the planks they run on. Those policies are often crafted in echo-chambers and arrive with the civil service as merely something to work out how to implement. Ms Noveck’s response was that politics is “bloodsport” and that, in time, we should all be able to work together to “discover what things government should be working on”. While western democracies are based on adversarial politics we’re going to remain a long way from that being the norm.

As ever, for me the important question is how do we continue this conversation? It heavily overlaps with similar ones on crowdsourcing and general citizen participation I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

In a rather meta way it feels like there a number of people who have the skills and motivation to become involved in this – how can we best connect them together?