Tag Archives: collaboration

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?


  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]

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.

Introducing the citizen expert

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!