Mural in Buffalo NY City Hall, from my flickr photos.
I just finished reading Wiki Government by Beth Simone Noveck. It's a great book on a critical subject and has given me many good ideas that I will integrate into my Bus Meister (soon to have a new name!) project. (Here's an article she wrote for Democracy magazine that summarizes the main concepts: Wiki Government.)
Noveck is a law professor from NY University who teaches patent law. Wiki Government showcases the a Web 2.0 application she developed to improve the US patent process. She uses this "Peer to Patent" application as a case study in the book to help analyze and explain how Web 2.0 applications can be used to improve many aspects of government work. I especially liked how she structures the problems inherent in public participation and her suggestions for improvements.
Noveck believes that citizens should be able to really collaborate with government rather than simply interact via the "anemic conception of participatory government." She proceeds to explain the problems with current public participation processes (e.g. most only allow comment on well-defined regulations and plans, and worse, generally the only ones who have the expertise and time to comment are the impacted industry and their lobbyists).
Her problems with public participation ring true to me. As a veteran of transport planning processes - from both sides of the table - I recognize that it really does not work. We did try an innovative approach in preparing the Caltrain Downtown San Francisco Extension project planning study in 1996-97 (the link takes you to a page on my website, about half way down I describe the Caltrain project).
We called the effort the Caltrain DTX Decision Options Screening (pdf of Transportation Research Board paper) process; the idea was to provide citizens with information about several different planning choices and then ask them to vote on the best decision. I think that the process worked pretty well and the citizens who participated did a good job choosing between the various options ... and that was all done with paper (pre-Internet), a much better job could be done with today's internet technologies.
However, real collaboration means more than simply voting. As Noveck says, "The bureaucrat in Washington often lacks access to the right information or to the expertise necessary to make sense of a welter of available information. This can pose a challenge to good decisionmaking and to creativity in problem solving." Again this sounds right to me. I remember reviewing information we received on a planning study from citizens and thinking, wow, it would have been great to have this information early in the planning process, not now when many of the key decisions have already been made.
Noveck makes the point that while many new technologies are being integrated into the democratic process, most of the time "The focus is on deliberation, not collaboration; on talk instead of action; on information, not decisionmaking." The book describes this problem and suggests ways to use Web 2.0 applications to help citizens collaborate effectively with government, using this input to make decisions and take appropriate actions.
I have only scratched the surface of this excellent book, but will close by listing Noveck's lessons learned (her lessons in italics, my comments following) for improving government by making better use of new technology:
1 - Ask the right questions - government needs to ask (the right) questions, not simply provide plans, regulations, etc. for comment;
2 - Ask the right people - allow people to self select based on their expertise and interests;
3 - Design the process for the desired end;
4 - Design for groups not individuals - this means break work into small logical chunks;
5 - Use the screen to show the group back to itself - Noweck spends a lot of time in the book explaining how important it is to design a good user interface that allows the group to achieve a sense of itself;
6 - Divide the work into roles and tasks - as she says, Wikipedia works because people know what to do;
7 - Harness the power of reputation - this means using techniques like digg or rating systems to recognize team members and contribution quality;
8 - Make policies, not websites - understand the process and goals before developing the website;
9 - Pilot new ideas - try things out;
10 - Focus on outcomes, not inputs - the goal is not to have lots of comments, it's to have a good end result.
Finally, if you are interested in making government and planning work better, read this book! It is an excellent introduction to an important new subject. I will certainly be incorporating some of Noveck's ideas in Bus Meister.