Tag Archives: Council of Europe

Leaving innocence behind: why open government is failing, and how it will still win in the end

Many people dislike and mistrust backroom deals and old boys networks in government. They prefer open and transparent governance. It makes for better institutions, and a better human condition. I am one of those people. Since you’re reading this, chances are you are, too.

Like many of those people, I watched the global Internet rise and saw an opportunity.  I put a lot of work into exploring how Internet-enabled communication could make democracy better and smarter. Most of that work was practical. It consisted of designing and delivering open government projects, first in Italy (Kublai, Visioni Urbane, both links in Italian) and later in Europe (Edgeryders). Since 2006, I have kept in touch with my peers who, all over the world, were working on these topics. Well, I have news: this debate is now shifting. We are no longer talking about the things we talked about in 2009. If you care about democracy, this is both good and bad news. Either way, it’s big and exciting.

Back in the late 2000s, we thought the Internet would improve the way democracy worked by lowering the costs of coordination across citizens. This worked across the board. It made everything easier. Transparency? Just put the information on a website, make it findable by search engines. Participation? Online surveys are dirt cheap. Citizens-government collaboration? Deploy fora and wikis; take advantage of the Net’s ubiquity to attract to them the people with the relevant expertise. We had the theory; we had (some) practice. We were surfing the wave of the Internet’s unstoppable diffusion. When Barack Obama made President of the United States in 2008, we also had the first global leader who stood by these principles, in word and deed. We were winning.

We expected to continue winning. We had a major advantage: open government did not need a cultural shift to get implemented. Adoption of new practices was not a revolution: it was a retrofit. We would use words familiar to the old guard: transparency, accountability and participation. They were like talismans. Senior management would not always show enthusiasm, but they could hardly take position against those values. Once our projects were under way, then they caused cultural shifts. Public servants learned to work in an open, collaborative way. Later, they found it hard to go back to the old ways of information control and need-to-know. So, we concluded, this can only go one way: towards more Internet in government, more transparency, participation, collaboration. The debate reflected this, with works like Beth Noveck’s The Wiki Government (2009) and my own Wikicrazia (2010).

All that’s changed now.

What brought the change home was reading two recent books. One is Beth Noveck’s Smart Citizens, Smarter Governance. The other is Complexity and the Art of Public Policy, by David Colander and Roland Kupers. I consider these two books an advance on anything written before on the matter.

Beth is a beacon for us opengov types. She pioneered open governments practices in a project called Peer2Patents. Because of that, President Obama recruited her on his transition team first, and to the White House proper later. She has a ton of experience at all levels, from theory to project delivery to national policy making. And she has a message for us: Open Government is failing. Here’s the money quote:

Despite all the enthusiasm for and widespread recognition of the potential benefits of more open governance, the open government movement has had remarkably little effect on how we make public decisions, solve problems, and allocate public goods.

Why is that? The most important proximate cause is that government practices are encoded in law. Changing them is difficult, and does need a cultural shift so that lawmakers can pass reforms. The ultimate cause is what she calls professionalized government. The reasoning goes like this:

  1. Aligning information with decision making requires curation of information, hence expertise.
  2. The professions have long served as a proxy for expertise. Professionalized government is new in historical terms, but it has now set in.
  3. So, “going open is a call to exercise civic muscles that have atrophied”.
  4. When professions set in, they move to exclude non-members from what they consider their turf. Everybody important in government is by now a professional, and mistrusts the potential of common citizens to contribute. And everybody reinforces everybody else’s convictions in this sense. So, you get a lot of  “meaningless lip service to the notion of engagement”, but little real sharing of power.

We now take professionalized government for granted, almost as if it were a law of nature. But it is not. Part of Beth’s book is a detailed account of how government became professionalized in the United States. At their onset, the US were governed by gentlemen farmers. Public service was guided by a corpus of practice-derived lore (called citizen’s literature) and learned on the job.  But over time, more and more people were hired into the civil service. As this happened, a new class of government professionals grew in numbers and influence. It used part of that influence to secure its position, making bureaucracy more an more into a profession. Codes of conduct were drawn. Universities spawned law and political science departments, as the training and recruiting grounds of the new breed of bureaucrats. All this happened in sync with a society-wide movement towards measurement, standardization and administrative ordering.

Beth paints a rich, powerful picture of this movement in one of my favourite parts of the book.  She then explains that new ways of channeling expertise to policy makers are illegal in the United States. Why? Because of a law drafted with a completely unrelated purpose, the Paperwork Reduction Act. And how did that come about? Lawmakers were trying to preserve the bureaucracy from interference and pressure from the regulated. To do this, it relegated non-government professionals in the role of interest representation. In other words, citizens are important not because of what they know, but because of who they speak for. A self-enforcing architecture of professionalized government had emerged from the state’s activities, without an architect .

Wait. Architecture with no architect? That’s complexity. Beth’s intellectual journey has led her to complex systems dynamics. She does not actually say this, but it’s clear enough. Her story has positive feedback loops, lock-in effects, emergence. She has had to learn to think in complex systems terms to navigate real-world policy making. I resonate with this, because the same thing happened to me. I taught myself network math as my main tool into complexity thinking. And I needed complexity thinking because I was doing policy, and it just would not damn work in any other way.

David Colander and Roland Kupers start from complex systems science. Their question is this: what would policy look like if it were designed with a complex systems perspective from the ground up?

They come up with fascinating answers. The “free market vs. state intervention” polarization would disappear. So would the dominance of economics, as economic policy becomes a part of social policy. The state would try to underpin beneficial social norms, so that people would want to do things that are good for them and others instead of needing to be regulated into them. Policy making agencies would be interdisciplinary. Experiments and reversibility would be built into all policies.

As they wrote, Colander and Kupers were not aware of Beth’s work and viceversa. Still, the two books converge on the same conclusion: modern policy making is a complex systems problem. Without complexity thinking, policy is bound to fail. I resonate with this conclusion, because I share it. I started to study complexity science in 2009. For four years now I have been in a deep dive into network science. I did this because I, too, was trying to do policy, and I was drawn to the explanatory power of the complexity paradigm. I take solace and pride in finding myself on the same path as smart people like Beth, Colander and Kupers.

But one thing is missing. Complexity thinking makes us better at understanding why policy fails. I am not yet convinced that it also makes us better at actually making policy. You see, complexity science has so far performed best in the natural sciences. Physics and biology aim to understand nature, not to change it. There is no policy there. Nature makes no mistakes.

So, understanding a social phenomenon in depth means, to some extent, respecting it. Try showing a complexity scientist a social problem, for example wealth inequality. She will show you the power-law behaviour of wealth distribution; explain it with success-breeds-success replicator dynamics; point out that this happens a lot in nature; and describe how difficult it is to steer a complex system away from its attractor. Complexity thinking is great at warning you against enacting ineffective, counterproductive policy. So far, it has not been as good at delivering stuff that you can actually do.

The authors of both books do come up with recommendations to policy makers. But they are not completely convincing.

Beth’s main solution is a sort of searchable database for experts. A policy maker in need of expertise could type “linked data” into a search box and connect with people who know a lot about linked data. This will work for well-defined problems, when the policy maker knows with certainty where to look for the solution. But most interesting policy problems are not well defined at all. Is air pollution in cities a technological problem? Then we should regulate the car industry to make cleaner cars. Is it an urban planning problem? Then we should change the zoning  regulation to build workplaces near to homes to reduce commuting. Is it an labour organization issue? Should we encourage employers to ditch offices and give workers groupware so they can work from home? Wait, maybe it’s a lifestyle problems: just make bicycles popular. No one knows. It’s probably all of these, and others, and any move you make will feed back onto the other dimensions of the problem.

It gets worse: the expertise categories themselves are socially determined and in flux. Can you imagine a policy maker in 1996 looking for an expert in open data? Of course not, the concept was not around. Beth’s database can, today, list experts in open data only because someone repurposed exiting technologies, standards, licenses etc. to face some pressing problems. This worked so well that it received a label, which you can now put on your resumé and can be searched for in a database. Whatever the merits of Beth’s solution, I don’t see how you can use it to find expertise for these groundbreaking activities. But they are the ones that matter.

Colander and Kupers have their own set of solutions, as mentioned above. They are a clean break with the way government works today. It is unlikely they would just emerge. Anyone who tried to innovate government knows how damn hard it is to get any change through, however small. How is such a full redesign of the policy machinery supposed to happen? By fiat of some visionary leader? Possible, but remember: the current way of doing things did emerge. “Architecture with no architect”, remember? Both books offer sophisticated accounts of that emergence. For all my admiration for the work of these authors, I can’t help seeing an inconsistency here.

So, where is 21st policy making going? At the moment, I do not see any alternatives to embracing complexity. It delivers killer analysis, and once you see it you can’t unsee it. It also delivers advice which is actionable locally. For example, sometimes you can persuade the state to do something courageous and imaginative in some kind of sandbox, and hope that what happens in the sandbox gets imitated. For now, this will have to be enough. But that’s OK. The age of innocence is over: we now know there is no easy-and-fast fix. Maybe one day we will have system-wide solutions that are not utopian; if we ever do, chances are Beth Noveck, David Colander and Roland Kupers will be among the first to find them.

Photo credit: Cathy Davey on flickr.com

Building policy-oriented communities for the European scale

Edgeryders icons
A few weeks ago, the Council of Europe released the e-book with the final results from the Edgeryders exercise. The back story is this: Edgeryders was born as an exploration of the transition of youth to independence and adulthood in crisis-stricken Europe. Normally the Council of Europe does this kind of thing by tasking a dozen qualified academics with writing a multi-author report, and then presenting its results. In this case, however, I was hired as project director, and proposed, instead, to build an open platform on the web and let every young (or not so young) European who wished to do so step in and contribute his or her personal experience. This made eminent sense, because all of us are either young or close to someone that is. Collectively, we have a lot of data about the transition of youth – much more than any restricted group of experts, no matter how qualified.

Matters turned out to be not that simple. My team and I had to put in place quite a complex project architecture: engagement managers to connect the project with communities busy with reinventing several aspects of society (like the social innovation, open government/open democracy and resilience communities); ethnographers to “harvest” and summarize the staggering wealth of ethnographic data that young Europeans contributed to the project; social scientists to compare the emergent world that innovative young Europeans are creating (or think they are) with the long-term goals and ideologies that inspire public policies of European institutions. We had to invent this methodology along the way; and I promise you it has been a fascinating journey, ripe with brilliant intuitions, goofy mistakes, and anything in between.

18 months after kickoff, I think it is safe to say that the fundamental premise of Edgeryders was true. That premise was this: if you have a problem that concerns the whole of society – a public policy problem – put it out there, throw the doors of your institution wide open and let a community of people that care about it grow around it, almost like a coral formation would grow on a sunken ship, and own it. I think the approach was right because the Edgeryders community did something unexpected: it concluded that (1) its members were more interested in directly contributing to a solution of the societal problems on the table than only talking about them and leaving it onto the government to address them; and (2) that its members were already turning into powerful allies for each other on that quest. So, instead of disbanding when the project was completed, Edgeryders (as community members call themselves) turned even more active; they entered seven socially innovative projects into the European Social Innovation Prize (accounting for over 1% of the total submissions!); launched an Edgeryders-inspired NGO called Edgeryders Sweden; partnered up with Swedish Foundation Global Utmaning to launch an inquiry into how the young relate to work (not just employment, actual work) in the Baltic region; and got to work to spin off its collective memory – the Edgeryders online platform itself, with all its content – from the Council of Europe into the wild (here is a temporary blog – heavy Drupal development is going on behind the scenes). More good things are in the pipeline: we see each other all the time, and involve one another in our projects. Just in the past two weeks I have been exploring network analysis (in Venice) with Anthony Zacharzewsky and Gaia Marcus; learning about urban suprematism (!) and the golden age of squatting (in Stockholm) from Dougald Hine, Ben Vickers and Ola Moller; hanging around open source developers from all over the continent (in Brussels) with Dante-Gabryell Monsoon and Michàl Wozniak. And that’s without even mentioning all of the online interaction.

Whatever else we did, we did build a proud community that is not afraid to look big problems in the eye, and even to attempt to crack some of them. My part of the e-book (read or download here) was conceived as a user manual: it offers a behind-the scene account of what was going on as we – starting from zero users – engineered the development of what would become Edgeryders. Enjoy!

#LOTE2 gearing up: can citizens do actual policy design?

Designing policy
I am looking forward to #LOTE2. Some of the most interesting people I know are coming: as if that were not enough, we are also coming up with a really great, interactive, no-spectator-allowed program. My favorite part is the Policy Hero Challenge: the idea is to take up some of the recommendations generated by the Edgeryders project and hammer it into policy. Real, solid, compliant, accountable, honest-to-God policy; the stuff that could be put before Parliament, or just be signed into existence by a senior bureaucrat as is. Of course citizens – even very smart ones – typically cannot do that. So, we are deploying professional policy makers in each session. They are tasked with not allowing the session to be simplistic.

Let me give you an example. We have a session on rewiring innovation policy. Edgeryders think innovation policy in Europe is missing the opportunity to support innovative people, as it simply can’t see beyond organization. So, how would innovation policy that targets individuals look like? I can imagine the conversation starting like this:

CITIZEN: “Governments only like to give big money to big tech companies. Everybody knows these are not the most innovative players! I mean, Dilbert works for a large tech corporation. Are you really giving taxpayer euro to Dilbert’s boss to innovate?”

POLICY MAKER: “Not so fast. We are required to account for every penny, and that is a good thing. Large organizations can show us how they spend taxpayer money: they have sophisticated accounting systems and they own large assets – so, if they don’t deliver, we can always sue them and get the money back. For example, in 2009 there was a really nasty episode with some small firms that put together a scam […] Of course, if we had reliable ex ante project quality indicators, we could take more risks on the accounting as long as we would be supporting the best projects, but measuring the quality of an innovation project a priori is a very hard problem. Here’s why […].”

It boils down to this: if you want to make policy, you have to take on board its full complexity. A dumbed-down version just won’t work: at least, I can’t think of any way to do this without treating everyone as an intelligent adult, and demanding everybody behaves like one. And when you think of it this is a really beautiful idea. It demands full honesty and transparency from policy makers; intellectual rigour and hard work from citizens; and mutual respect from everyone. It brings out the best everyone has to give. And it might work.

I am really, really curious to run the experiment, and very proud. I am proud of the Edgeryders community for making the effort (God knows many of them are broke, and investing time and money to come to Brussels to have this kind of discussion is a really generous gift); proud of our policy makers, Prabhat Agarwal and his colleagues at the European Commission’s DG Connect, Justyna Krol and her unit at UNDP-CIS, Anna Maria Darmanin at the European Economic and Social Committee, Amelia Andersdotter at the European Parliament; super-proud of my colleagues at the Council of Europe – Gilda Farrell, Nadia El-Imam, Malcolm Cox, Noemi Salantiu, Andrei Trubceac, Joel Obrecht – for supporting the event even though it is not an official Council of Europe one.

And I am proud of you all, my fellow humans, so well represented by the wonderful people at #LOTE2. After all of the screwups in the long, bloody history of what we today call government; after all the false starts, broken promises, bogus ideologies, visionary leaderships betrayed by mediocrity (and don’t even get me started on the really heavy stuff of Gulags and secret police), it looks like we are still smart enough to look truth in the eye; strong enough to forgive each other; and crazy enough to try again, and even think that, this time, we might get it right.

If you want to participate to #LOTE2, read this.