Tag Archives: open government

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

Photo: Massimo Battista

We Are The Champions: Italian journalist hacks the EU’s Digital Champion appointment

During the tenure of Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes, the European Union has invented a political appointment called Digital Champion. Champions, one per country, are appointed by national governments. According to their official website, they are expected to “help every European become digital”.

No explanation is offered on just how it is expected that they will accomplish that, but we can attempt to make an educated guess at that by reverse engineering the institution design. Digital Champions receive no compensation,  have no staff and no budget. Their only formal obligations is to meet at least twice a year. I interpret this as follows: Digital Champions operate by moral suasion. They apply pressure by virtue of their personal influence: their formal status as advisors to the Digital Agenda Commissioner should give them some extra clout, in the sense that they can theoretically call on the Commission to support them in prompting the member states to forward the Digital Agenda.

Italy has had four digital champions so far. Regrettably, the first three have made no impact at all that I could see. The fourth one, charismatic journalist Riccardo Luna, has come up with an idea that might change completely Italy’s officialdom’s approach to all things digital. Appointed on September 2oth 2014, he immediately announced he would use the institutional legitimacy granted to him by the appointment to enable many, many people to act as digital champions. To a first approximation, he wants each one of Italy’s 8,057 local authorities to have their own Digital Champion; he also envisions a dozen, slightly more experienced people to act as a “help desk”. All these people are to coordinate through an NGO, formally constituted on November 20th. In essence, Italy’s Digital Champion is now a collective, distributed agent. Its activity is being crowdsourced.

I consider this to be a major hack of the Digital Champion institution – possibly the most radical policy hack I have witnessed firsthand. For two reasons.

  1. It increases the influence of very many digital activists by institutional endorsement. In a sense, this is not so different from the mechanism designed by Kroes, but the scale is two orders of magnitude larger. Take Antonino Galante, a small ICT entrepreneur who has been appointed the Digital Champion of Patti, a small Sicilian town of 13,240 inhabitants. Luna expects that Galante can now be a little more persuasive in asking the Mayor of Patti to adopt open source software for the Town Hall; a little more effective in connecting local geeks with headmasters to further digital literacy initiatives. Why is that? Because he can call Luna himself in Rome, and ask for help. And Luna, by virtue of his appointment, has access to the Prime Minister and to the European Commissioner; and by virtue of his own professional position, he has access to national media. If you are the mayor of Patti, you are still facing Galante’s moral suasion, but someone, a couple of levels up from him, wields a lot more firepower than you. It will practically never get used, but it is there. This seems to be a candidate solution the problem (dear to my heart, and very tough indeed) of building interfaces between bureaucracies and networks.
  2. It creates an agent which starts with institutional legitimacy, but is completely independent from any public institution and is likely to last longer than Luna’s tenure. Like Luna himself, his small army of local digital champions will not receive any money – but the newly minted Digital Champions NGO is eminently fundable by virtue of size and scope. The Italian private sector is desperate to get the country onto the digital economy bandwagon, and 8000 members, by paying a small annual contribution of 30 euro, can easily support a small full-time staff. It is unrealistic for an NGO with that kind of membership and financial autonomy to take orders from whoever the next appointed Digital Champion will be. The government has simply no leverage to rein it in, other than Luna’s personal charisma. If the NGO stabilizes, the country will have created a permanent high-level actor, a force to be reckoned with.

Luna has never run for office or worked in the public sector, and sees his move as a no brainer. “What was I expected to do? – he shrugs – Go to round tables? I do that already, for what it’s worth. I wanted to find a way that the role of Digital Champion could make a difference for a country that very badly needs to be more digital. The role comes with no resources, but I do have a resource: I know a lot of skilled, enthusiastic people. Together we can make a difference.”

For the moment, it does not look like the 8000 Digital Champions have any political opponent – quite the contrary. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi attended the full length of the NGO’s launch event, signaling he is comfortable with how Luna is interpreting his role. Thousands of Italians cheered on through social media, and the day after the launch Luna reported receiving 20 applications per hour from Italians wishing to serve as local digital champions. The private sector – desperate to get Italy on the digital economy bandwagon – indicated it wants to play ball, with Telecom Italia pledging 250,000 euro to the new NGO before it was even formally constituted. Even traditional media endorsed the initiative, with national TV live covering the launch event.

This lack of controversy is largely attributable to Luna’s inclusive style and personal credibility. Politically non partisan, he is one of Italy’s foremost journalists on technology and innovation, he served as the first chief editor of Wired magazine in Italy; led a campaign for the Internet to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; got the Maker movement on Italy’s mainstream radar, bringing to Rome Europe’s largest Maker Faire; co-founded and still chairs Wikitalia, possibly Italy’s foremost civil society organization on open government. Technology companies love to fund his projects – also because, he says “I never took a cent for myself, I do all this for free and support myself with my day job as a journalist”. Intensely anti-materialistic, Luna has discovered that there is power in not getting paid. When would-be Digital Champions detractors asked sneeringly how much the paxpayer had paid for the initiative, he looked them in the eye, answered “not one cent”, and added that he has paid for the launch event with the money he had been saving for his 50th birthday party, and several of his friends and supporters chipped in by providing free services. It is hard to argue with someone that committed.

The only criticism lurking in the background maintains that the digital champions mission is essentially a public one. Many people feel that Italians pay taxes for their public sector to accomplish this mission, and it is unfair for unpaid, self-financed volunteers to take it up. There is a fairness issue: some (in the public sector) are paid to further the digital agenda but do not do the work, while others (in civil society) do do the work, but are unpaid. Digital Champions (of which a minority works in the public sector) tend to agree, but reply that this is the hand this generation has been dealt, and a deep fix of the Italian public sector is unrealistic in the short term. Let’s get the job done, we will argue fairness later.

Full disclosure: I know Riccardo Luna well and consider us to be friends. Our friendship consolidated as we founded together Wikitalia (he serves as president, I on its board) and took it forward. I trust him personally, find the Digital Champions project fascinating and accepted to serve on its board, advising local digital champions on Internet-enabled citizen participation and collaboration.

Citizens-government collaboration: a three minute primer

I have the honor to have been invited as a panelist to the third European Outreach Meeting of the Open Government Partnership, in Rome. The chair – my friend Guido Romeo at Wired Italia – had given me a fierce briefing: give the room a how-to list for involving citizens in collaboration with government institutions. In less than five minutes, in English and without using slides. So I complied as best as I could – it took three minutes, and a lot of simplification.

After the panel, a few kind souls came up to me, congratulated and asked if I had any writeup. As a matter of fact, I did: I had saved my notes in a draft email – as close as it gets to the digital version of a paper napkin. So, here it is. Enjoy.

  1. Make sure you have the right issue. Participation is not particularly useful when it comes to mutually exclusive, divisive choices (“Windows vs. Linux”). In the hacker community, which is very likely the hotbed of the most advanced participation techniques around, these discussions are known as “religion wars” and recognized as counterproductive, because they don’t converge, no matter how much you talk about it.
  2. Design the right process. This is very tricky, as it is a choice to make in a highly multidimensional space, so I won’t even attempt to go into that. Let me just say one thing: the critical thing about designing a collaboration process is that technical choices are not implementation issues to be left to your ICT people. They cast a shadow on the future, because technology is not good, nor bad, nor neutral. Example: “tell us your idea” type tools are very popular – even Open Government Partnership uses them. These were designed for corporate customer relationship management (“hey, this car should also come in dark green” kind of idea). They are good at harvesting the creativity of their users, but bad at keeping track of the consequences of alternative courses of action. Think of budgeting decisions: someone says “let’s invest in education!” and that idea gets many votes – surely better education must be a good thing. But this has nothing to say about what you forego in order to invest on education. When designing a process, at a very minimum you need to deploy social and technical plumbing in a way that controls for psychological biases (which are huge and well documented) and mathematical fairness of the proposal evaluation and decision making phase, and tries to get the citizen to be at her best. In that ancient technology for collaboration we call Parliament, people call each other “my honorable colleague”. That’s an exhortation; a reminder that what unites users of that technology is more fundamental that what divides them; it is embedded in the rules, and nudges interaction towards a more collaborative stance.
  3. Pay attention to the citizen’s security. Some citizens are not happy with being profiled, datamined, packaged in huge databases and sold to marketeers – and that includes some of the most committed, skilled, creative layers of society. Some distrust Google. Many distrust Facebook. My advice is: talk to the hacker community. Talk to the privacy movement. They are willing to help. And if they feel safe, this will send a good signal to everyone else.
  4. Enforce a fair and explicit social contract. Citizens are now asked to spend time and brainpower in a large and growing number of participation and collaboration exercises. Inevitably, we are looking at an inflation phenomena, with about 200 people showing up in all of them and being stretched very thin. Citizens are not on the government’s payroll, and their time should be used sparingly and with respect, trying to give something back. This something is likely be influence and knowledge. Influence: in return for my effort, I get to have some influence in this particular government decision. Knowledge: in return for my effort, I get to understand better this problem I feel I should know about. Whatever the precise contour of the social contract, I would argue any participation exercise needs to have one; and that part of it has to be a follow-up, where citizens are thanked and told what the government did with their input and why.