How open-source technology can make government decision-making more expert and more democratic.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "All professions are conspiracies against the laity," and nowhere is this more the case than in a democracy. Although political legitimacy demands accountability to an electoral process, those living in a democracy readily submit to what sociologist Michael Schudson calls the "permanent embarrassment" of expertise. We believe that administrative governance by a professional elite is the best way to organize decision-making in the public interest. Experts decide on acceptable levels of mercury emissions in the air, anti-discrimination rules in education and the workplace, and the standards for cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasting stations.
The justification for this professional decision-making, articulated by theorists ranging from Max Weber to Walter Lippmann, is that while citizens can express personal opinions based on values, they are incapable of making fact-based decisions on matters of policy. For Weber, the complexities of modern governance call for "the personally detached and strictly objective expert." Only institutionalized and governmental professionals possess the expertise, resources, discipline, and time to make public-policy decisions. And citizen participation is hard to organize and administer, and even harder to scale. It is one thing for 10 bureaucrats to debate a policy and come to an informed consensus; try getting the same result with 10,000 people–or 10 million.
Now, however, new technology may be changing the relationship between democracy and expertise, affording an opportunity to improve competence by making good information available for better governance. Large-scale knowledge-sharing projects, such as the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, and volunteer software-programming initiatives, such as the Apache Webserver (which runs two-thirds of the websites in the world), demonstrate the inadequacy of our assumptions about expertise in the twenty-first century. Ordinary people, regardless of institutional affiliation or professional status, possess information–serious, expert, fact-based, scientific information–to enhance decision-making, information not otherwise available to isolated bureaucrats. Partly as a result of the simple tools now available for collaboration and partly as a result of a highly mobile labor market of "knowledge workers," people are ready and willing to share that information across geographic, disciplinary, and institutional boundaries.
Consider how communal pooling of knowledge is already at work. An individual may submit the first "stub" about the history of the Ming Dynasty or the biography of Winston Churchill in Wikipedia, and a wider community of millions collaborates on writing, editing, and refining every article. Wikipedia is open enough to allow expertise to emerge, but it is also structured enough, with outlines and to-do lists, to set the rules for a certain kind of group collaboration–and that collaboration is producing high-quality results.
Or take sites that utilize self-reinforcing "reputation" systems to improve quality and reliability. These so-called social-networking sites–like Dopplr for travelers, LinkedIn for business professionals, or Facebook and MySpace–use community rating and friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) accreditation mechanisms to build the reputation and trust necessary to form knowledge groups and communities. Making expertise relevant for the complex processes of policy-making also requires forming communities that can collaborate, but it goes beyond that. It demands "civic networking," tools designed for groups to transform data into knowledge useful to decision-makers, as well as the concomitant institutional practices designed to make use of that knowledge.
Political philosophers from Aristotle to Rousseau to Rawls have suggested that when groups engage in the public exchange of reason, they produce better ideas. In practice, however, more talk usually slows decision-making and comes with the attendant problem of groupthink. Increasingly, however, we are discovering how to use computers to enable deliberation without endless talk and without having to be in the same room. And those structures–enforced through software–are what transform the subjective, free-wheeling, dynamic expertise of amateurs into effective communities of experts.
For example, the Omidyar Network, the philanthropy launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, asks the public to participate in awarding its grants. Rather than invite submissions from thousands of individuals–which would have strained resources to review–the Omidyar Network created an online framework for the interested community to deliberate and winnow the proposals first. Or consider New Assignment, which was launched to demonstrate that "open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust." The site set forth the social practices to elicit collaborative reporting (instead of collaborative gossip-mongering), resulting in the publication of seven original essays and 80 interviews, as well as a series of stories about collaborative journalism for Wired magazine. While this fell short of the number of pieces the organizers had wanted, New Assignment still enabled the "crowd" to produce stories as good as any found in a national magazine and demonstrated how to organize (and how not) the process. Similarly, the Sense.us program at the University of California–Berkeley provides public mechanisms to allow people across disciplinary boundaries to collaborate in making, and thereby making sense of, census data graphs and charts. And the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is taking this idea to the next level: connecting experts directly to actual decision-making in the "Peer-to-Patent" project.
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