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The Obama administration wanted to open up government to citizen input. Why hasn’t it worked?

- June 20, 2016

Beth Simone Noveck is the Jerry Hultin Global Network Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. Her new book, “Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing,” was published by Harvard University Press. I asked her five questions by email about the book’s major arguments.

HF: Your book argues that the challenge for government has changed so that the real problem is not trying to limit corruption in the nineteenth century. Instead, it’s bringing new forms of expertise — including the expertise of ordinary citizens — into the governmental process. What are the reasons that you believe this will help?

BN: To be clear, the word “ordinary” may be a little misleading. The fact is that expertise — including credentials, practical know how, and lived experience — are widely distributed in society. Yet our public institutions were designed in the 19th and 20th centuries when, due to the limits of communications technology, it was necessary to rely on the so-called best and brightest, who were hired into bureaucratic institutions. This allowed the government to make decisions and create policies from a central location.

The reality of the Internet era is that we now have opportunities that we didn’t have in the nineteenth century, to draw on the expertise of citizens and experts outside the government. If we want to do this, however, we need to re-design institutions so that they become adept at identifying and finding expertise, fostering conversations with those inside and outside of government, and bringing that expertise to bear for the public interest. Today, those in government don’t have access to these kinds of conversations. This is one of the key reasons they rely on lobbyists so much — much of lobbyists’ power lies in their ability to offer authoritative-seeming advice and solutions. The longer we put off reforming government to take advantage of citizen expertise, the longer we will have to depend on lobbyists, who unsurprisingly have their own interests.

HF: The Obama administration has tried to introduce programs to make the policy process more open, such as its system for online petitions. Your book suggests that these efforts haven’t had very substantial consequences to date. Why is this so?

BN: Many governments at the federal, state and local level are beginning to use the Internet to engage people from outside by such means as electronic petitions or “suggestion box” websites. The most notable example is the White House’s We the People site. The good side of these petitions websites is that they offer a new way for members of the public to draw attention to an issue. However, there are limits too. Specifically, it is often hard for policymakers to act on these petitions. What they usually provide is a naked demand that the government do something, without any of the necessary evidence, know how or instructions for how to do it. The government really uses these sites to ask people their opinion, rather than to draw on the public’s knowhow. As a result, the petitions usually don’t go anywhere.

HF: You note that existing laws may actually make it illegal for the government to look for outside advice unless it adopts very stringent and complicated procedures. What are these laws and why were they enacted?

BN: The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (FACA) and the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (PRA) entrench the face-to-face committee and consultation practices of an era before the Internet. Though commendable at that time, they have become outdated. For the past quarter century of the World Wide Web, we have understood the potential for using new technology to gather knowledge and perspective from people outside the Beltway and outside the meeting room. Yet the national government still depends on face-to-face meetings for advice and those meetings exclude some of the voices from which we need to hear most. These laws might create more transparency but at the price of making it practically impossible to use the Internet to get more diverse expertise into decision making.

HF: Many social scientists argue in the abstract that open government would be better. However, there is very little practically useful academic research on how we might actually do this. What do social scientists need to do to do better?

BN: It is very hard to re-engineer a plane while flying it. Yet we need to know more. For example — does opening up the government’s data about how it spends money help in practical ways to show how spending could be usefully reduced or better directed? Which ways of asking the public to brainstorm problems work best? Which problems are best solved using brainstorming? To answer these questions we need to measure what works. That requires research that may be imperfect and messy because it involves working with real-world institutions rather than abstract models. It also requires more inter-disciplinary collaboration between policy and political scientists and computer scientists. The latter have the ability to embed social-science experiments in software.

Things are getting better. There is a burgeoning community of “action research” social scientists studying governance innovation practices, including open data, crowdsourcing, citizen science and other more open and collaborative ways of doing and deciding. You can find some of their work at the Open Government Research Exchange (OGRX).

HF: The closing pages of your book point to the enormous challenge of figuring out how to build and maintain the institutions that would support a two-way conversation between the government and citizens. How might we start thinking about addressing this challenge?

BN: We need to experiment more with new technology. This can provide practical ways to bring in new ideas from outside government, and to push questions and challenges out to a broader public. This will, ideally, help people not only to share information but to distribute responsibility for making decisions and taking action.

Above all, however, these innovations in governing must be accompanied by rigorous yet agile social science research to understand the impact of such open and collaborative practices. Do they lead to more evidence-based and effective policies? Do they produce more efficient services for citizens at lower cost? Do people participate and why and what are the incentives for them to do so? As MIT professor Kurt Lewin wrote in 1945, research that produces nothing but books will not suffice. If we are willing to get our hands dirty studying the nature of work and decision-making in real world institutions, we have the potential to advance research and, at the same time, to design institutions that are better able to identify and implement innovative ways of improving lives.