Social Strategy Talk: Participation and Open data
Social Strategy Talk hosted by Creative Crowds and ViNT. Tom Steinberg (mySociety) and I were the closing speakers, talking about the issue of public participation and open data in relation to government innovation. There were plenty of smart people there, including practitioners from the government of the Netherlands and key players behind the Dutch Digital Pioneers initiative that funds social innovation.
My talk was a very simple introduction to why this topic matters, plus a consideration of some recent critiques of transparency initiatives, decorated by a lovely data visualisation of world population growth from the G-Econ project.
It went more or less like this:
We are living with political structures from the last century (or older), and we must be bold in stepping forward to build smarter government services that leverage the power of ‘we’. Even Obama’s administration is still in the relatively early stages of achieving anything like this. We face problems that governments alone cannot fix – problems that are rooted in network behaviour and whose solutions also lie in network thinking – and we also face issues of fragmentation, identity and belonging in a rapidly, and unevenly globalising world. But also, right here and now, we face the issue of ever increasing expectations of public services, combined with rapidly dwindling funds.
This is the context for the importance of participative processes underpinned by open data. The social web has taught us that lots of people performing simple actions can result in spectacular collaborative outcomes on the aggregate level; and we have also learned the immense power of feedback as an evolutionary force for improvement. These lessons, when applied to using some of the vast array of data produced and consumed by government, could help us create new, perhaps real-time relationships between government and citizens, rather than 4-5 year electoral feedback cycle we see today. This is partly why we have been working with David Osimo and others on the Open Declaration on European Public Services, calling for greater transparency, participation and empowerment through public service delivery. Please endorse the declaration so that David can present it to the Ministerial Conference in Malmo next month.
We have seen some progress with Data.gov and the UK’s open data project, and extending this to other important data sets, such as mapping data in the UK, is vital work that must continue. We have also seen a number of good participation projects that show the potential for involving people in co-design of services, sense making and decision making. We also have the excellent example of Social Innovation Camp and 4IP that show how people can come together to find innovative solutions to social problems, or just make better public services; and, of course, we have the example of mySociety, who have produced some ground-breaking projects that open up previously invisible data or processes in meaningful ways.
So why are governments not mainstreaming this value more quickly? Why are these projects so under-funded when (at least in the UK) the government is paying millions to large private sector suppliers every month for major projects that deliver little added value and have such a high failure rate? Perhaps the simplest way to change this situation is to top-slice all IT project budgets and distribute 10% of the funding as innovation funds that can allow smaller players, perhaps even community groups, to try to solve the same problem, with follow-on investment if they come up with workable solutions. In my view, participation and open data projects should be leading the mainstream, not relegated to the periphery.
In thinking about participation and open data projects, I suggested there are four key areas of focus in our social business design methodology that provide useful starting points to think about related success factors:
- ecosystem: developer networks to play with open data, distribution networks and critical friends to help shape these projects in the early stages
- co-design: ensuring that the services we build involve users at every stage of their design, which is in itself an empowering outcome for people used to just ‘getting what they are given’
- signals and data flows: how does information and data move around networks, and how do we signal relevance or importance to others
- filters: more data needs better filters to make sense of it
Finally, I looked at two recent critiques of transparency to consider whether we should watch out for negative externalities or unintended consequences in pursuing open data and participative methods. First, Larry Lessig published a piece Against Transparency that looked at the limits of what he called ‘naked transparency’, and he made the point that raw data (especially about individual performance or potential influence / bias) is open to mis-interpretation and mis-understanding, so total transparency should not be our only goal. He also argues, quite rightly, that there is an attention-span issue that means people will not necessarily track an issue with the diligence we might expect:
To understand something–an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence– requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.
The other critique that I think we should consider, but which is also very much for the future when we have made far more progress towards opening up government to popular participation, is the issue of legitimacy. Will Davies recently wrote:
…following Mirowski, we might say that ‘government 2.0′ is the final realisation of the neo-liberal state. No auditors, no experts, no objective knowledge, no sense of the common good, just maximum freedom for individuals to form opinions and privately process information. As David Weinberger says in triumphant Hayekian style, “transparency is the new objectivity.” In some instances, consumer perspectives may form the basis of action – demanding change if they’re a prominent journalist or campaigner, selecting a different service supplier if they’re a fortunate lay-person, or just mouthing off on facebook if they’re not so lucky.
But siding with perspective over expertise cannot be the basis for legitimacy. Allowing people to express their frustration or disappointment, but without offering dialogue or improvement at the end of it, removes the security offered by expertise, but without offering anything in its place. Auditors act as the critics of experts, but they do so from some rival position of expertise; they damage legitimacy, but partly so as to then rebuild it. By contrast, a state laid bare only to the audit of general public dissatisfaction is surely heading towards a legitimacy crisis.
What this suggests to me is not so much that the new forms of government we are fumbling our way towards is necessarily less legitimate than a representative democracy run by a bureaucracy, but that we need to find more sophisticated deliberative methods to supplement the simple participation and ‘opinion’ tools that we see today. Not an issue for now, but nonetheless something to think about.