I have been studying Internet-enabled collaboration between citizens and institutions for some years now. I have had the chance to explain its basics to many people from different backgrounds. There is a point that has almost everyone take issues, at least in the beginning when I say online collaboration works so well because participants are not selected by anyone. This is counterintuitive. How can an unfiltered environment perform better than one where participants are carefully chosen? And yet, that’s the way it works, thanks to the combination of large numbers (unfiltered spaces are more crowded, so they have more brainpower to throw at issues) and self-selection (people flock to spaces where the discussion is about things they are knowledgeable and passionate about). I am well aware I will have to repeat my case over and over, but as far as I am concerned the case is closed. Online collaboration between citizens and institutions works. Get used to it.
This brings a new figure to political processes: the citizen expert. All successful experiences I know have produced authoritative figures, citizens who are passionate about the discussion and bring to it contribution of astonishingly high quality. These people are typically complete unknowns: they seem to materialize from nowhere, but they become very important to the processes and take observers by surprise for the quality and integrity of the role they play. Davide Davs’s air pollution graphs in the Area C group attract a lot of attention, and they have more or less established in that space the principle that it is a good idea to back your claims with data.
All this works well online. My team and I have decided to run an experiment within Edgeryders, the project I manage at the Council of Europe: bring our citizen experts to an offline event, Our idea is this:
- take a group of citizens, NOT selected but rather self-selected.
- socialize them through an online community, oriented towards constructive discussion.
- organize a conference for them to interact with policy makers and academics.
- cast them as experts: official invitation, travel and accomodation costs covered, commitment to produce some deliverables. The message is loud and clear: you are not on the receiving end of public policy. You are a protagonist, a policy maker.
- ask them to produce proposals for reform – in our case, of European youth policies.
I am convinced that the results will be extraordinary. All the conditions are there: policy makers can explain the latitude and the limits of their mandate; academics contribute with statistical data and analysis. Citizen experts can bring to the table the “living data” of their experiences, which generalize to ideas and proposals more naturally than you may think. If there are enough of them (and there will be) they can also contribute by seeking consensus on certain points, like a large focus group. Thanks to the months spent interacting in the Edgeryders platform, our way to discuss has been washed clean of normative thinking (“the world should not be like this!”), non-demonstrated statements (“it is clear that the age of capitalism is coming to an end”) and trolling (“you are all slaves to big business anyway”). Participants have recognized each other as partners in this particular effort – the Edgeryders researchers themselves use the platform to interact with the community they are a part of – and that makes us free to spend our time at the conference actually getting things done. We did a small-scale prototype in March – a workshop, open to a few community members – and it went really well: the discussion was productive, effortless and fun. It shows even in the photos!
We believe in this solution so much to invest in a quarter of Edgeryders’s budget in the conference – i.e. in covering travel and accommodation costs for citizen experts. We should be able to cover 100 to 120 people, mostly young, converging onto Strasbourg from all over Europe on 14 and 15 June. The community is already organizing an unconference for 16-17, so as to have more time to hang out and plot out our common future. If you care about the transition of young people to an independent active life, think about putting yourself forward to be a citizen expert: on the Edgeryders blog you can find out how to get an invitation, the program and Vinay Gupta’s call to arms. Why, you might even find yourself being part of a small innovation: a new online/offline interaction format for citizens-institution collaboration!