Category Archives: Open government

Photo: Greg Goebel

Can politics be collaborative?

In Edgeryders, we study  and practice collaboration, especially online. Time and again, we find it the most powerful force that people with next to no wealth and no power, like us, can evoke. We are getting good at it, though much work remains. Proof: we are a mutant company with no office, no investors, no business plan. We have nothing but each other – a tiny core of founders, and the Edgeryders community. And yet we are out there, with top-notch global organizations among our clients, and we are growing. 2016 has been a good year for us – we’ll be blogging about this soon.

2016 has also been a year of uncertainty and discontent in world politics. Many people dear to us are sad, angry or scared. Almost no one seems satisfied about their politics and their leaders. That goes both for the losing camp and the winning one. We consider this contrast, and wonder. As a culture, we are getting better at working together in diversity. Why does this not translate into more constructive politics?

As we looked into this, we realized that our default frame for politics is combat. There are opponents and allies. Its protagonists focus on winning. This is understandable but useless, except maybe as a spectator sport. What happens if we drop this frame and adopt a collaboration frame instead? What would happen if a political entity were run like a collaborative project? What would happen if lawmaking worked like Wikipedia? What if policy happened like the next release of Apache or Ubuntu?

This:

  1. Enabling as core mission. A state, or city, or region, exists only to enable the people who live there to do what they want to do. It does not need a vision, because people have their own. It only needs to enable the largest possible outcome space for the largest number of people. In return, it gets compliance and tax revenue. This would be the only focus of collaborative politics. Compare with political visionaries, who try to sell you their way of seeing things.
  2. By default, do nothing. When faced with a proposal for radical reform, the community around a collaborative project discusses it. These discussions can last a long time. Then, almost always, the radical reform does not go ahead. This is because, whatever its other flaws, the project in its current form works. Its next version might be much improved, but no one can guarantee that it will work, and when. Reform needs a rock-solid case to go forward. Compare with I-need-to-leave-a-mark-on-my-term.
  3. Focus on infrastructure. Collaborative software projects do not make things, but building blocks that people can build things with. Enabling, remember? The point is not to decide which color is best for people’s web pages, but to write code that allows anyone to easily choose any color for their own page. In the policy world, this means building infrastructure– and infrastructure is hierarchical. The more general, the better. Aqueducts are better than hospitals. Hospitals are better than arts centers. Arts centers are better than exhibitions. Compare with bullshit pet projects of elected representatives (“Let’s make an incubator for social innovation”).
  4. Unglamorous leaders. Narcissistic, flamboyant personalities do not do well in collaborative projects. People’s attention needs to be on building, so attention seekers are a liability. The most respected members of these community are nerdy, reliable people that won’t waste your time. Compare with modern politicians near you.
  5. Avoid controversy. Any successful open source project has lots of controversial proposals for moving forward. But it also has many on which everyone agrees. Controversy is a waste of time, so people go for the low-hanging fruit first, and build the things everyone agrees on first. This builds mutual trust, and might take the project in directions that make the controversy disappear altogether. Compare with politics-as-combat.
  6. Do-ocracy, not stakeholder representation and deliberation. Stakeholder representation has served us well when societies were simple and hierarchical. In those salad days, a dozen people around a table could make decisions, and depend they would be acted upon. This no longer possible. In a collaborative project we don’t discuss what to do. Within the (broad) core values of the project, you can do whatever you want as long as you have the capacity to deliver it. Who does the work calls the shots. No one gets to tell others how they should contribute.  Compare with endless debates and cross-vetoes everywhere.

You get the idea. This how we work when we build online encyclopedias and web server software. Or companies like Edgeryders. Could this be how we work when we build our cities, national parks and energy grids? Could we do that not in the name of an ideology, but simply to build our own happiness, and that of those we love?

Could there be another space to get down to building? A terrain so hyperlocal and fragmented as to be too expensive for narcissistic strongmen and Machiavellian schemers to enter? A move so lateral that it will not even exist in the same space as post-truth politics?

We don’t know, yet. But, in the wake of the dark tide of 2016, we see people in our network asking new questions. Something new, something big is on the move. As always, we will stand by our community, and help as best we can. If you, too, have been waiting for something to get in motion; if you want to be a part of building it, and figuring out where it takes, get in touch. Nadia will be revealing some of our immediate plans at AdaWeek in Paris, on November 22nd (info): if you can’t make it there, get in touch with her or join our mailing list.

[written with Nadia El-Imam]

Fool me twice, shame on me: the return of Alec Ross

UPDATE June 20th. I have realised I may have been too emotional about this. I have decided to try to learn more about what the Diplomacy 2.0 vision looks like in 2016, and then make up my mind.

This post is a part of a series of reflections aimed at cutting back on the noughties’ hype about the wonderful changes of modern technology. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but, in retrospect, we seem to have gotten a little overenthusiastic. I am as guilty as anyone else, and am now trying to regain a more critical perspective (example).

2009, remember? A charismatic, charming, pre-drone strikes and let-Guantanamo-be Barack Obama sat in the White House, heralding a new era of Internet-powered transparency, accountability and collaboration. It was government 2.0’s finest hour.

In 2009, a man named Alec Ross visited Italy on behalf of the State Department. He toured the country, and everywhere he went he asked to meet the local bloggers. The city authority in Bologna invited me to one such meeting. Wide-eyed with admiration at the cool of the Obama administration,  a half dozen bloggers attended. Relaxed and confident, Ross looked and spoke more like a social media marketing early mover than like a diplomat. He also seemed to have no agenda: he just wanted State Department to be friends with the bloggers. That seemed very forward thinking. It still does. He called it “diplomacy 2.0”. Transparency and openness are in the interest of diplomats, he explained. The more clearly a country communicates, the better its positions can be understood, even more so in a media landscape where bloggers were becoming the main opinion makers. There will still be classified information, but the new normal was to be one of openness.

What a great concept, we all thought. How far behind we are lagging in our own country. Then CableLeaks happened, and State Department did not like transparency so much anymore. The administration maintained on the one hand that there was no dirty secret to uncover in the cables, and on the other hand that people had no business knowing what was in there. The pool of highly prestigious newspapers redacting the leaks before publication (The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Paìs, Le Monde…) were told in no uncertain terms to hand over the material. It all ended in a major mess, involving Amazon, Mastercard, Paypal, John Perry Barlow and just about any government worth its salt (or not). All this led the Executive Office of the President to circulate a memorandum (January 2011), addressed to every branch of the American government. It is signed by the then-director, of the National Counterintelligence Agency, and comes down to: “are you sure you got your employees on tight lockdown?” My favourite question is this:

Do you use psychiatrist and sociologist to measure: (i) Relative happiness as a means to gauge trustworthiness? (ii) Despondence and grumpiness as a means to gauge waning trustworthiness?

So much for openness.

But why reminesce about this now? Because I made a mistake: I endorsed the Diplomacy 2.0 concept. I tried to convince people I respect that yes, “diplomacy is the prosecution of war by other means” and all that, but you could trust these guys. They were like us. It made so much sense.

And because Mr. Ross is back. He’s got a book out. It’s called “The Industries of the Future”, and it sets itself an ambitious goal:

Leading innovation expert Alec Ross explains what’s next for the world: the advances and stumbling blocks that will emerge in the next ten years, and how we can navigate them.

His 2009 prediction about an open, transparent diplomacy “being next” turned out to be very wrong, as Clay Shirky pointed out. That’s an interesting failure, and we can all learn from it. So I contacted Ross to ask him if I could look forward to a chapter about diplomacy 2.0 being blown to hell by the old guard’s reaction to Wikileaks. His reply:

You can keep waiting. Diplomacy 2.0 is as strong today as ever. And I agree 100% with Clinton on Wikileaks. The wikileaked cables changed nothing. If anything, they showed what an excellent job American diplomats were doing. They did not reveal wrongdoing. They revealed right-doing. (whole discussion at 2016-05-25 17.35, image file)

The discussion that ensued was civilised, but unproductive and unpleasant. Ross insisted on blaming Senator Joe Lieberman, not the Obama administration, for the US reaction to the Cableleaks. Senator Lieberman has his sins to answer for, but this is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. The memorandum quoted above does not come from the U.S. Senate. It comes from a very senior officer in the executive branch. I backed off – we were getting nowhere, and I have no interest in trolling. I was in it for the learning.

Still, I do not think Ross’s position (that everything is smooth sailing) is credible. I don’t think I will be reading this book. It’s not so much the wrong prediction, that happens to everyone, especially experts. It’s the refusal to acknowledge it that I cannot respect. Toeing the party line is just what you do not want in a futurist. Shame: Ross is smart and has been around, but I just cannot bring myself to trust him after this. Fool me once, shame on you. But fool me twice?

Photo credit: Cathy Davey. 

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

Complexity and public policy: a very short reading list

I have a new talk out, sort of. So far I have delivered it only in Italian (slides with notes), and it’s still work in progress. But getting there. It addresses the following question: can we reform government by making it more open and smart? If so, how?

I know. It sounds like something from a B-list TEDx event. You can almost picture some eager junior civil servant talking about “innovation” and “design” and “disruption”, the sort of disruption that does not destroy anyone’s job, civil rights, or democratic institutions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out to be much more difficult than that. Even talking about it is difficult. To even address the question, I had to ask myself: what is government? Why did it come into existence? Whhich evolutionary pressures now constrain its evolution? Doing so set me on a strange journey. I have been on it for about ten years now. It led me to uncover relevant stuff in many disciplines: history, economics, anthropology, networks science, sociology, math, philosophy, archaeology, experimental psychology, biology (lots of biology). It does not look like it’ll be over any time soon.

I still don’t know if and how we can make government more open and smarter. But I did get something in return for ten years of hard thinking: my brain is now rewired. I now look at administrative action in a perspective borrowed from complexity science. I draw most of my metaphors from biology. I have (somewhat) learned to look for emergence and self-organisation, and I can’t unsee it. I have become (somewhat) aware of my own psychological biases and cognitive limits. This transformation has been so profound that I can barely discuss with my former war buddies anymore.

And what I see is not cute. It’s strong stuff, inebriating and scary. So: last week I did this talk to open the School of Civic Technologies in Torino, and some students asked me for a reading list. Here it is, but don’t say you have not been warned. This is a red pill-blue pill situation. “There’s no turning back.”

So, here’s a barebones reading list in chronological order. If your interests center on public policy, start from the end. If you are more curious about complexity science, skip Ostrom, read Waldrop first and work your way up. Whatever you do, read Scott.

  1. Elinor Ostrom, 1990, Governing the Commons. People can and do steward common resources over the long run, with no central control and no definition of property rights. Great example, solid theorizing.
  2. Mitchell Waldrop, 1992, Complexity: the Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Still the best account of the story of the Santa Fe Institute in the early days. Functions as an introduction to the main intuitions behind complexity science.
  3. James Scott, 1998, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Essential reading. It shows how statecraft and legibility are tightly coupled. Casts a dark light on the emphasis on “evidence based”  and “data driven” when the guy speaking these words is also the guy with the gun.
  4. David Graeber, 2011, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. A long-term history of money and debt (it turns out they are the same thing). The book is very rich, and most of its value is not in its main thesis. For my purposes, the main teaching lies in the incredible value brought to the table by disciplines apparently quite far removed from policy issues – and, conversely, of the intellectual danger of not being interdisciplinary.
  5. Duncan Watts, 2011, Everything is obvious (when you know the answer). One of my favourite networks scientists sets out an ambitious (but achievable) research plan for the social sciences. Its take on what constitutes “data” and “evidence”, and of their limits, are typical of complexity science. Vanilla policy people tend to not understand data even minimally crunched.
  6. David Colander and Roland Kupers, 2014, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy:
    Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up. An account of what public policies would look like if both the government and the governed knew complexity science, and were prepared to take it seriously. Review, in English and Italian.
  7. Beth Noveck, 2015, Smart Citizens, Smarter State. An authoritative take on why open government is failing. My favourite part is the treatment of how government became professionalized (and therefore exclusionary) in the USA. Review, in English and Italian.