Chapter 4. The Single Point of Failure

Beth Simone Noveck

The world is full of amateurs: gifted amateurs, devoted amateurs. You can pick almost any group that has any kind of intrinsic interest in it, from dragonflies to pill bugs to orb-weaving spiders. Anybody can pick up information in interesting places, find new species or rediscover what was thought to be a vanished species, or some new biological fact about a species already known.

E. O. Wilson

The patent system is just one example of how government institutions create single points of failure by concentrating decision-making power in the hands of the few, whether legislators in Congress, cabinet officials in the executive branch, or bureaucrats in agencies. Administrative practices are constructed around the belief that government professionals know best how to translate broad legislative mandates into specific regulatory decisions in the public interest. Governance, the theory goes, is best entrusted to a bureaucracy operating at one remove from the pressure of electoral politics and the biased influence of the public at large.


This chapter is an excerpt from Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful, Beth Simone Noveck, Brookings Institution Press, 2009.

The Closed Model of Decision Making

The rationale for this closed model of decision making, as explained by such theorists as Max Weber and Walter Lippmann, is rooted in the assumptions of an earlier age. Although citizens may express personal opinions, they are thought to lack the ability to make informed decisions on complex policy matters. Moreover, democratic pessimists warn, government officials must be protected from the factionalized public that Madison so feared in Federalist 10. To ward off this danger, centralized power is concentrated in the apolitical professional or, in Weber’s words, “the personally detached and strictly objective expert.”[45] Only government professionals possess the impartiality, expertise, resources, discipline, and time to make public decisions. Or so it is assumed. The assumption is not unjustified insofar as the technology has not been available before to organize participation easily. Participation in a representative democracy is largely confined to voting in elections, joining interest groups, and getting involved in local civic or political affairs.

Thus the patent examiner, like her counterparts throughout government, must act as an expert in fields far outside her ken. The process of determining which inventor deserves a patent demands that she analyze and synthesize scientific and technical information about cutting-edge areas of innovation over which she has no real mastery. In any given subject area there are scientists, engineers, and lawyers with greater expertise, as well as laypersons with valuable insights, but the patent examiner has no access to them. In this she is not alone. In a survey of environmental lawyers, for example, only 8 percent of respondents thought that the EPA has sufficient time to search the relevant science before making a decision about environmental policy, and only 6 percent believed that agencies employ adequate analysis in their decision making.[46] The bureaucrat in Washington often lacks access to the right information or to the expertise necessary to make sense of a welter of available information. This can pose a challenge to good decision making and to creativity in problem solving.

The single point of failure results not just from a lack of time or resources or technology. It goes much deeper than that. Simply put, professionals do not have a monopoly on information or expertise, as the social psychologist Philip Tetlock observes. In his award-winning book Expert Political Judgment (Princeton University Press), Tetlock analyzes the predictions of professional political pundits against modest performance benchmarks. He finds “few signs that expertise translates into greater ability to make either ‘well-calibrated’ or ‘discriminating’ forecasts.”[47] While smart people can explain, they often cannot predict and therefore make decisions based on spectacularly bad guesses.

Pacifists do not abandon Mahatma Gandhi’s worldview just because of the sublime naïveté of his remark in 1940 that he did not consider Adolf Hitler to be as bad as “frequently depicted” and that “he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed”; many environmentalists defend Paul Ehrlich despite his notoriously bad track record in the 1970s and the 1980s (he predicted massive food shortages just as new technologies were producing substantial surpluses); Republicans do not change their views about the economic competence of Democratic administrations just because Martin Feldstein predicted that the legacy of the Clinton 1993 budget would be stagnation for the rest of the decade; social democrats do not overhaul their outlook just because Lester Thurow predicted that the 1990s would witness the ascendancy of the more compassionate capitalism of Europe and Japan over the “devil take the hindmost” American model.[48]

It turns out that professional status has much less bearing on the quality of information than might be assumed and that professionals— whether in politics or other domains—are notoriously unsuccessful at making accurate predictions. Or as Scott Page, the University of Michigan author of The Difference, pithily puts it: “Diversity trumps ability”—this is a mathematical truth, not a feel-good mantra.[49]

Moreover, government or government-endorsed professionals are not more impervious to political influence than the impassioned public that bureaucrats are supposed to keep at arm’s length. Often the scientists and outside experts who are asked to give impartial advice to government are lobbyists passing by another name. The National Coal Council, made up almost exclusively of coal industry representatives, sits on the Department of Energy’s federal advisory committee on coal policy: the department has adopted 80 percent of the Coal Council’s recommendations.[50] White House officials regularly replace experts on agency advisory panels with ideologues and political allies (or eliminate advisory councils altogether). An Environmental Working Group study finds that the seven EPA panels that evaluated proposed safe daily exposure levels to commercial chemicals in 2007 included seventeen members who were employed by, or who received research funding from, companies with a financial stake in the outcome.[51]

In a published statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, over 60 preeminent scientists, including Nobel laureates and National Medal of Science recipients, lambasted George W. Bush’s administration for having “manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions.”[52] In 2008, 889 of nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists reported that they had experienced political interference in their work over the last five years.[53] But if the Bush administration is among the more egregious violators of the presumed wall between politics and institutionalized expertise, its actions only go to show how easy it is for any executive to abuse his power while claiming the mantle of expertise.

Taking a historical view, the journalist Chris Mooney, in his book The Republican War on Science, persuasively explains that the marriage of big business to the religious right in the Reagan era has resulted in a systematic abuse of science in regulatory decision making.[54] What began during World War II as an intimate relationship between science and politics—the flames of whose passion were fueled by the competitive jealousy of the cold war and the attentions of an intellectually inclined Kennedy administration—has now waned. The rise of conservatism spurred a movement to create alternative sources for scientific information. Hiding behind the skirt of science, antievolution and antiabortion politics create pressure to misrepresent science to serve political ends. At the same time, the fear by big business that scientific research might impel expensive environmental and consumer regulation further contributes to a distortion of the use of science in policy making. Mooney readily acknowledges that the Left as well as the Right makes decisions on the basis of political value judgments rather than facts. But whereas Democrats, he contends, sometimes conduct politics in spite of science, choosing to ignore the data in pursuit of a normative end, Republicans dress up politics as science and attempt to name such positions “creation science” behind a veneer of scientific legitimacy.

The problem of relying solely on professionals is compounded by the practice of confidential decision making. While federal government agencies are required by law to conduct meetings in the open (and many state governments have similar sunshine laws), this spirit is violated by regular backroom dealings with lobbyists.[55] Under the Bush administration, the attorney general changed the presumption of disclosure under Freedom of Information Act requests away from the prevailing standard to make it more difficult for agencies to release information and allow agencies to defend decisions to withhold records “unless they lack a sound legal basis.”[56] President Obama changed it back. It is not surprising that the American people perceive government to be taking place behind closed doors (three-quarters of American adults surveyed in 2008 view the federal government as secretive, an increase from 62 percent in 2006).[57] Massive financial bailout measures taken late in 2008 met with concerns that these troubled asset relief programs lacked transparency or monitoring. There have been myriad instances of information being deliberately hidden.

The Bush administration threatened to shut down the award-winning economic indicators website, which combines data like GDP, net imports and exports, and retail sales to make it convenient for viewers to assess the state of the economy.[58] The administration also announced it would no longer produce the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, which identifies which programs best assist low-income families, and stop publishing its report on international terrorism, making it more difficult for citizens to find important and useful news.[59] The Bush administration has taken down reports about mass layoffs and, by executive order, limited the publication of presidential records.[60] Until 1999 the USPTO did not publish patent applications until they were granted.[61] Even today, the office is circumspect about Internet research to avoid compromising the privacy and confidentiality of the decision making process.[62] The less those outside the government know about its activities, self-evidently, the greater the need to rely on internal experts. When the public cannot see how decisions are arrived at, it cannot identify problems and criticize mistakes. Accountability declines and so does government effectiveness.

New Technologies and Civic Life

Technology enables collective action in civil society and helps some people to route around the logjam created by the single point of failure. Countless civic groups already use new communication and information-sharing tools to promote political action, operate an opposition movement, or mobilize community activism. Collaborative governance needs to be distinguished from this kind of civic action that is independent of government— instead of

The Carrotmob project in San Francisco uses the “carrot” of consumer buying power to encourage small businesses to help the environment. Web-based tools are used to organize a consumer “flashmob,” which channels business to stores that commit to environmental improvements. Carrotmob organizer Brent Schulkin asked local businesses how much they would be willing to invest in environmental improvements if the group he convened were to organize a buying spree directed toward that business. The result for the winning bodega in San Francisco’s Mission District: more than triple the sales of an average Saturday, lots of free advertising, oodles of community goodwill, and a scheme to pay for improvements that, in turn, will save the business money over the long run.

Similarly, Obama Works, a corps of self-organizing citizen volunteers with no connection to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, used Internet technologies to organize neighborhood cleanups not only on a local scale but also on a national scale. Tech for Obama similarly galvanized support for the campaign within the techie community. Supporters, independent of the campaign, even went so far as to create “campaign offices” to recruit volunteers and organize voters. The largest one, in Silicon Valley, California, started on December 15, 2007.[63] Its Neighborhood Teams project geocoded the records of 1.5 million voters and used them to help over 40,000 neighbors find each other and volunteer in support of Obama. They produced and sent daily email newsletters to 5,000 people. Its 35-person technology team built its own tools to overcome inefficiencies in the organizing process. For its part, the official Obama campaign organized a summer program for Obama fellows (students and recent graduates who were recruited online) to come together and spend six weeks learning basic organizing skills from grassroots leaders. Senator Obama also spoke out publicly about creating a grassroots civic structure that could survive the campaign and continue to work on community issues after the election. In addition to meeting face to face, these volunteers used the Internet to form groups, organize, and bring about social change.

Both Carrotmob and the activities swirling about the Obama campaign are vivid examples of the use of new media technologies to convene and organize groups of people who, working together, can be more effective than any individual acting alone. Other examples include powerful online netroots organizations and blogs, ranging from on the left to Red State at the other end of the political spectrum.

Civic groups are also taking advantage of new technologies to shine the light of greater transparency on government from afar. These third-party brokers of transparency are helping to do what government is not doing enough of for itself. The Cato Institute’s Jim Harper launched the WashingtonWatch program to track bills in Congress and estimate their cost or savings, if implemented into law. The Center for Responsive Politics started OpenSecrets; and the New York Gallery Eyebeam launched FundRace (now part of the Huffington Post blog) to make the Federal Election Commission’s databases easier to understand and search. used collaborative editing software, known as a wiki, to mark up the Transparency in Government Act of 2008 and the various economic stabilization and bailout proposals floated during the economic crisis in the fall of that year.[64] shines the light of transparency on money politics by illuminating who contributed to which politician and how he or she subsequently voted.

But while online communities to date may have enabled people to click together instead of bowling alone, they are not yet producing changes in the way government institutions obtain and use information. These purely civic programs are disconnected from the practices and priorities of government. They may circle around political themes and issues but are not tied into institutional processes. They are, therefore, limited in what they can accomplish. A few pioneering programs, such as Connecticut’s City Scan program, suggest forms that such change might take were we to redesign rather than try to route around the workings of government.[65] Launched in the mid-1990s by the Connecticut Policy and Economic Council, CityScan helped city governments in Bridgeport and other municipalities collaborate with local communities to rescue derelict land-use sites. The organization secured a promise from each city to assist with the cleanup of a given number of parcels. Senior citizens and young people used first-generation digital cameras and handheld devices to photograph and track the progress of the work in their own communities. They mapped conditions on a website. The community groups communicated local information about land use that the government would not otherwise have had. They worked alongside the government while holding it accountable.

The government, in turn, worked with the CityScan teams, taking action based on their input and thereby giving relevance and impetus to these volunteer efforts. Technology helped both sides to organize the collaboration and to visualize its success. But the crux of CityScan was not the tools. The practices that CityScan evolved for robust collaboration between groups of citizens and local government are what differentiated this work from that of most civic action.

Collaboration and collective action, of course, are not new. Since the early nineteenth century, members of the august Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall in London have penned questions in a shared book, which was left in the club’s leather-chaired drawing room for other members—including Dickens and Thackeray—to answer.[66] The book is still there.

As Stephen Kosslyn, chair of the Harvard Department of Psychology, explains, working together allows people to utilize many different tools. He says that, because we “simply do not have enough genes to program the brain fully in advance,” we must extend our own intelligence with what he terms social prosthetic systems.[67] At the most basic level, we need to pool our diverse knowledge and skills. Even institutions need prosthetic extensions to make themselves smarter and more effective.

Virtually all activities of public life, including activism and organizing, depend on the work of teams. Until recently, however, most teams have relied heavily on physical proximity.

In the pre-Internet era, when working at a distance was not possible to the same extent (I had to be near you to join you), participation would have demanded a far greater time commitment to a cause. In the decade leading up to the American Revolution, the colonies organized Committees of Correspondence to communicate their practices of self-governance and fortify their opposition to the British.[68] Through the exchange of ideas about successful ways of working, they coordinated decentralized efforts at resistance across a distance. But they were committed to this all-important cause. Anything less and one would still have had to attend meetings to accomplish shared goals or alternatively pay dues to an organization to work on one’s behalf. The ability now to use new technology to organize shared work makes it possible to work in groups across distance and institutional boundaries. Technology can reinforce the sense of working as a group by recreating some of the conditions of face-to-face work environments that build trust and belonging. The ability to organize collective activity puts more power in the hands of individuals by making it possible for people to self-organize and form teams around a boundless variety of goals, interests, and skill sets. And technology can support the formation of larger and more complex teams than previously imaginable.

Not surprisingly, the software community has been in the forefront of efforts to tap these benefits. Harvey Anderson, general counsel of the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox browser, says of the Mozilla community of volunteer programmers: “Many is better than one.” He echoes a common refrain among those who work on open source governance: “Whenever we confront a problem, we have to ask ourselves: How do I parse and distribute the problem? How might we build feedback loops that incorporate more people?”[69]

The volunteer efforts extend the capacity of the full-time staff at Mozilla. By asking a community to help fix bugs in the software and rewrite the code, the organization begins to rely more and more on its community of volunteers, most of whom are not full time and most of whom may not even be known to the central project leadership. Instead, by articulating a set of common goals the Mozilla Foundation helps disparate groups of people organize themselves and perform practical, concrete tasks toward a shared end.[70] What begins as a process of information gathering builds steam and ends up creating a culture of engagement. Whereas the Mozilla organization makes the final decision about which software version to release, and when, the centralized organization cannot make these decisions without the help of the community of volunteers upon whom it relies to do the work. As the community comes to be more involved, actual decision making becomes a more amorphous concept, and control becomes dispersed. Everyone in the network has an influence.

Similarly, when a policy problem is divided into smaller parts, so that it can be distributed and worked on by collaborative teams, the drive toward openness and innovation begins. This openness may help government do its job better by bringing better information to the institution. But it can also introduce the institutional priorities to more people so that competition for solutions can emerge. Impelled by government mandate, the private sector and civil society might suggest their own solutions, evolving more robust public-private approaches, which may produce greater legitimacy than government currently enjoys. It may also help to solve complex economic and social problems faster and more efficiently.

New networking technologies, such as those embodied in Peer-to-Patent, provide an opportunity to rethink the closed practices by which agencies gather information and make decisions. In 2007 the U.S. Congress mandated, and the president signed, a complete changeover by 2014 from incandescent bulbs to new, energy-efficient but mercury-containing lightbulbs. Congress instructed the EPA to implement the law into regulations. The agency, however, did not yet have a plan for disposing of the 300 million new mercury-containing bulbs sold in the United States in 2007—a number that will only increase as the mandate approaches.[71] The EPA could have solved this problem at little additional cost by setting up a simple online platform to involve a network of concerned citizens and organizations in identifying both the challenges raised by the new law and possible solutions—a lightbulb clearinghouse. Private sector companies might have stepped up to offer mercury reclamation programs sooner; foundations might have funded prizes to social entrepreneurs who devised effective solutions; interest groups might have run competitions among their members for effective recycling practices; scientists could have pointed out that they were working on the creation of a “nanoselenium” cloth to clean up mercury spills.[72] Creating new channels of communication would not only inform and improve information gathering, but it could also lead to improved decision making and greater citizen involvement.

Policy makers have been slow to seize these opportunities. Innovation is not emanating from Washington; instead, the practices of government are increasingly disconnected from technological innovation and the opportunity to realize greater citizen participation—and therefore more expert information—in government. At the very least, this means that government institutions are not working as well as they might, producing declining rates of trust in government. (In 2008 the approval rating of both Congress and the president declined below 30 percent and, in some polls, even below 10 percent.)[73] At the very worst, there is a crisis of legitimacy. Clearly, relying on a small number of institutional players to make important decisions is not the only or the best way to confront complex social problems.

One explanation for this government failure lies in the unfamiliarity with technology displayed by many policy makers, including those responsible for its regulation. In the debate over net neutrality, then Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, vice chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Innovation, infamously referred to the Internet as “a series of tubes.”[74] While tubes could arguably be a reasonable metaphor, history has not been kind to Senator Stevens, whose literal remark has now become iconic (it has its own Wikipedia entry) of Washington’s ignorance of technology. But lack of technical knowledge is not the only cause of the government’s slowness to capitalize on the promise of networked, online groups. An even more fundamental explanation lies in the outdated theory of participatory democracy that drives the design of government institutions.

Participatory Democratic Theory in the Age of Networks

After the advent of the World Wide Web, many anticipated that the Internet would revolutionize government, enabling an increase in political participation: an e-democracy as well as an e-commerce revolution. Pundits heralded a new Periclean Golden Age and celebrated the civic opportunities of the new communications and information technologies.[75] The deliberative ideal of people with diverse backgrounds and differing viewpoints debating and even voting on public issues was about to become a reality. It did not happen.[76]

The Failure of Direct Democracy

Proponents of direct democracy (sometimes called pure democracy) hoped that the Internet would promote participation unmediated by representative politics by allowing citizens to express themselves through voting (referenda, initiatives, recalls) more often on a wider range of issues.[77] Direct democrats argue for the use of technology to bolster such forms of direct participation as the initiative and referendum as a way to speed up the pace of governance.

During his presidential bid Ross Perot celebrated the direct democratic ideal and advocated that the president communicate directly with the American public via new media and encouraging the public to vote regularly and directly from home on issues.[78] Auburn University houses a center dedicated to teledemocracy—large-scale, Internet-enabled, direct democracy.[79] Aficionados of proxy voting like the idea of using the web to allocate one’s votes to a trusted interest group of one’s choosing to render direct democratic voting better informed and more practical to administer.[80] A now-defunct Swedish company pioneered online proxy voting in the political arena, a practice in common use in the corporate sector.[81]

But security and reliability problems have plagued the rollout of both electronic, kiosk-based, voting and Internet-based vote-from-home technologies in the United States. Annual political elections are hard enough to run without introducing yet more possibilities for voter fraud and abuse. Instead, new services, such as from Switzerland, use the Internet to inform voting at the polling booth. Smartvote allows the user to plug in opinions in response to questions. The software then tabulates which candidate or proposal is closest to the user’s own views. Countless informational websites have sprung up around the electoral process, whether it is the Washington Post’s subscription service to inform the reader every time her elected official casts a vote or one of myriad webcasts of online legislative coverage designed to inform and render the political process more accountable by virtue of its being transparent.[82]

But the notion of widespread, push-button democracy in whatever form does little to address how to institutionalize complex decisions in particular cases. It is no wonder that the vision of participation by direct democratic voting has not taken off.

The Timidity of Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy has been the dominant view of participation in contemporary political theory. At its center is the Habermasian notion that the reasoned exchange of discourse by diverse individuals representative of the public at large produces a more robust political culture and a healthier democracy.[83] It has almost become a commonplace that people of diverse viewpoints should talk to one another town-hall-style in public (this despite the fact that some recent empirical research even suggests that talking to people of differing viewpoints correlates to reduced participation in community life).[84] It is a normative, democratic ideal unto itself and a means to the end of enhancing legitimacy in governance.

With the reduction in the cost of communications since the Internet, the hope had been that new information technologies would result in more widespread deliberation. Early e-democracy thinkers were optimistic that new technology could promote open discourse, equal participation, reasoned discussion, and the inclusion of diverse viewpoints. By allowing diverse participants to come together regardless of the boundaries of geography and time, the Internet could help overcome the hurdle of groupthink—a state in which like-minded people fail to consider alternatives adequately and fall prey to their own ideology.[85] Like direct democrats, advocates of deliberative democracy have also been disappointed. While social-scientific experiments in deliberation proliferate, deliberative theory founders on the practical reality of present-day political decision making. In practice, such conversations have been difficult to achieve, especially on a large scale.[86]

The weakness of the deliberative approach is not that it reaches too far (as direct democracy may) but that it does not reach far enough. By making talk the centerpiece of its normative aspirations, deliberative democracy’s proponents assume that people are generally powerless and incapable of doing more than talking with neighbors to develop opinions or criticizing government to keep it honest. In theory, convening people of diverse viewpoints can have a beneficial impact on policy—assuming that the political system is structured to translate those viewpoints into meaningful participation in decision making.[87] But in practice, civic talk is largely disconnected from power. It does not take account of the fact that in a Web 2.0 world ordinary people can collaborate with one another to do extraordinary things.

The anthropology of deliberative participation leads to practices designed to present the finished work of institutional professionals, spark public opinion in response, and keep peace among neighbors engaged in civic discourse. The goal is not to improve decision making, for “there is no one best outcome; instead, there is a respectful communicative process.”[88] The desire for civilized discussion and dispute resolution lead to a requirement of demographically balanced representation in the conversation. This may ensure inclusion of all affected interests but does not, as Alexander Meiklejohn said, necessarily result in an airing of all ideas worth hearing.[89] Deliberative democracy relegates the role of citizens to discussion only indirectly related to decision making and action. The reality of deliberation is that it is toothless. Perhaps it is, as Shaw once said: the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

In 2002, for example, the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York (with the help of AmericaSpeaks, a civic group that organizes public deliberation, and the sponsorship of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) convened Listening to the City, a demographically representative deliberation exercise that brought 4,500 New Yorkers together in person and 800 online to talk about the first set of designs for the World Trade Center site.[90] After hearing a presentation of the proposed plans, the group was highly critical. The high-profile, public nature of the event attracted a front-page story in the New York Times. It led directly to officials scuttling the plans and initiating a second round of designs.

The people power, as the populist historian Howard Zinn might say, of a large number of people massing in physical space created political pressure.[91] But people were neither expected nor invited to offer advice and expertise to inform the new plans. In this carefully orchestrated deliberation, they did not have an opportunity to get involved in the cleanup nor to identify problems or solutions to the mounting environmental and economic development challenges in the area. The problem was not presented in ways that could have led to private sector assistance either in the government’s effort or as an adjunct to it. Nothing about the weekend changed or improved the way government works. Arguably, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation used the Listening to the City exercise to appear responsive to citizens’ concerns while obscuring the real power politics at play, ultimately depriving New Yorkers of the chance to participate rather than simply react.[92]

The political sociologist Michael Schudson writes about the “monitorial citizen,” who is too busy to play an active role in government.[93] While it is important and useful that government is responsive to the watchful citizen, this passive vision does not recognize the full potential of ordinary people to share expert information and effort with government. Among members of the public are scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, students, teachers, and nonprofessionals with a wide range of experience and enthusiasm who can contribute to an understanding of energy independence by submitting data. Others can analyze information given to them about endangered species or participate in the drafting of policies about transportation. There are expert conferences daily, where instead of presenting disconnected academic papers great minds might also be enlisted to solve pressing social problems. These potential resources for public decision making are largely going to waste.

Distinguishing Deliberative and Collaborative Democracy

There is a difference within participatory democracy between the two related but distinct notions of deliberation and collaboration. Deliberation focuses on citizens discussing their views and opinions about what the state should and should not do. The ability for people to talk across a distance facilitates the public exchange of reasoned talk. But deliberative polls, neighborhood assemblies, consensus councils, citizen panels, and other conversation-centered experiments, whether online or off, have not translated into improvements in decision making practices. The underlying Internet and telecommunications infrastructure is essential to conversing across a distance, but the Internet by itself is not the “killer app.” If it were, the history of citizen participation in government institutions, which I describe in Chapter 6 [of Wiki Government], would already look very different.

While both deliberation and collaboration may be group-based, deliberative democracy suffers from a lack of imagination in that it fails to acknowledge the importance of connecting diverse skills, as well as diverse viewpoints, to public policy. Whereas diverse viewpoints might make for a more lively conversation, diverse skills are essential to collaboration.

Deliberation measures the quality of democracy on the basis of the procedural uniformity and equality of inputs. Collaboration shifts the focus to the effectiveness of decision making and outputs.

Deliberation requires an agenda for orderly discussion. Collaboration requires breaking down a problem into component parts that can be parceled out and assigned to members of the public and officials.

Deliberation either debates problems on an abstract level before the implementation of the solution or discusses the solution after it has already been decided upon. Collaboration occurs throughout the decision making process. It creates a multiplicity of opportunities and outlets for engagement to strengthen a culture of participation and the quality of decision making in government itself.

Deliberation is focused on opinion formation and the general will (or sometimes on achieving consensus). Consensus is desirable as an end unto itself.[94] Collaboration is a means to an end. Hence the emphasis is not on participation for its own sake but on inviting experts, loosely defined as those with expertise about a problem, to engage in information gathering, information evaluation and measurement, and the development of specific solutions for implementation.

Deliberation focuses on self-expression. Collaboration focuses on participation. To conflate deliberative democracy with participatory democracy is to circumscribe participation by boundaries that technology has already razed. In fact, the distinctions between deliberation and collaboration become even more pronounced in the online environment, whose characteristics are increasingly making collaboration easier.[95] New technologies make it possible to join ever more groups and teams. Such familiar websites as Wikipedia, Facebook, and even video games like World of Warcraft inculcate the practices of shared group work, be it writing encyclopedia entries or slaying monsters, at a distance.

New technology is also making it possible to divvy up tasks among a group. “Digg-style” tools for submitting and rating the quality of others’ submissions have become commonplace ways to sort large quantities of information. Finally, the digital environment offers new ways to engage in the public exchange of reason. With new tools, people can “speak” through shared maps and diagrams rather than meetings. Competing proposals, using computer-driven algorithms and prediction markets, can evolve. Policy simulations using graphic technology can be created. Social networking tools enable collaborative making, doing, crafting, and creating. Yet most of the work at the intersection of technology and democracy has focused on how to create demographically representative conversations.[96] The focus is on deliberation, not collaboration; on talk instead of action; on information, not decision making.

The Argument for an Open and Collaborative Democracy

The case for an open and collaborative vision of democratic theory is bolstered by three arguments: collaboration as a distinct form of democratic participation, visual deliberation, and egalitarian self-selection.

First, collaboration is a crucial but not well understood claim of democratic practice. There is a belief that the public does not possess as much expertise as people in government. Furthermore, the technology has not previously existed to make collaboration possible on a large scale. These spurious assumptions have produced an anemic conception of participatory democracy. Participation has generally referred to once-a-year voting or to community deliberation, in which neighbors engage in civil dialogue and public opinion formation on a small scale. New social and visual technologies (sometimes referred to as Web 2.0) are demonstrating that people are knowledgeable about everything from cancer to software and that, when given the opportunity to come together on a network and in groups, they can be effective at solving problems (not only deliberating about them). We must therefore distinguish between deliberation and collaboration as forms of participatory practice, exploring many examples of ordinary people joining together to do extraordinary things coordinated via the Internet. Peer-to-Patent is a paradigmatic case of database programmers and wind-farming experts working with patent examining professionals to make a better decision.

Second, the medium matters. To enable collaboration at scale requires designing the practices to make participation manageable and useful and then enabling those practices by means of technology. While the forms of participation will differ when information gathering or priority setting or data analysis are required, the technology should always be designed to reflect the work of the group back to itself so that people know which role they can assume and which tasks to accomplish. This second insight is what I term visual deliberation. In traditional deliberative exercises, strict procedures for who can talk govern the public conversation. But collaboration depends, instead, on having tools that convey the structure and rules of any given collaborative practice. This kind of social mirroring can be communicated through software. Peer-to-Patent uses visualizations to communicate the workflow by which information goes from the government institution to the public and back again. The website helps to convey what it means to review a patent application. It exploits rating and reputation techniques that help each group work together as a group, even across a distance. Hence, designing new democratic institutions also depends on designing the appropriate collaborative practices and embedding that design in software.

Third, collaboration is a form of democratic participation that is egalitarian—but egalitarian in a different way than the traditional understanding of the term. Typically, mass participation like voting is thought of as being quite democratic because everyone can participate in the same way. By contrast, Peer-to-Patent is not mass participation. It demands highly technical expertise. Successful participation depends upon the participant’s interest in and knowledge of patents. If Peer-to-Patent were the only example of collaborative participation, it would not be egalitarian. But Peer-to-Patent multiplied by a thousand would be more institutionally diverse and complex. If the patent expert and the doctor and the teacher each have a vehicle for engagement, contexts would be created in which they each uniquely possess expertise and derive meaning.

In other words, people do not have to participate in the same exercise. One person may want to work on Peer-to-Patent, another may want to get involved in health care debates. One person may want to work on energy policy, another may want to organize a corps of energy “scouts” to go door-to-door and help neighbors evaluate their energy usage. The ability to self-select to participate in the arena of one’s choosing is what makes collaborative democracy egalitarian. A person may be an expert on wetlands because she possesses professional credentialing. Another person may be an expert on wetlands because she lives near one. Perhaps it is a level of know-how or the enthusiasm to commit more time that generates status in other domains. For every project, there is a different kind of expertise, which could be sought. Experts will flock to those opportunities that exploit their intelligence. In this choice lies the equality of opportunity.

What does open and collaborative democracy look like in practice? In the old way of working, the bureaucrat might decide to repair a bridge in response to an opinion poll or vote that randomly obtains feedback. Or the bureaucrat might publish a fully developed plan to repair the bridge, ostensibly soliciting comment in response to a notice of proposed regulation, attracting participation by formal interest groups and lobbyists but not ordinary citizens, who can never hope to match the power and influence of corporate interests. Community groups might use the web to lobby for bridge repair but with no greater opportunity to get involved in detailed decisions. The government or a nongovernment organization (NGO) might organize a face-to-face deliberative discussion about the bridge and hope to use the event to trigger a newspaper article that will influence the decision. A similar online discussion may or may not attract attention.

Under a collaborative strategy, the bureaucrat establishes the process then frames and asks the questions that will get targeted information from bridge users (the truck driver, the commuter), from an engineer, and from the informed enthusiast. The public can contribute evidence and data to help inform specific decisions, analyze data once gathered, and share in the work of editing, drafting, and implementing policies. Alternatively, if officials articulate the priority of bridge safety, they might spur private sector businesses, nonprofits, and individuals to develop their own strategies, such as organizing a volunteer corps of bridge safety inspectors who log their work on a shared website. Citizens are no longer talking about the process: they are the process.

The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for experts (loosely defined as those with expertise about a problem) to engage. There is a Plum Book, which lists government jobs, and there is a Prune Book, which lists the toughest management positions. The pluot is supposed to be the sweetest variety of plum (or plum plus apricot). Yet there is no “Pluot Book” cataloging opportunities for part-time participation in government! When participatory democracy is defined to include diverse strategies for collaboration, when these thousands of opportunities to self-select come to light, a Pluot Book may well be needed.

Challenges for Collaborative Democracy

Critics might suggest that there already exists an architecture of participation, involving a wide array of actors in policy-making processes. Corporations participate through lobbyists and notice-and-comment rule-making. Nongovernmental organizations, too, funnel information to government through think tanks, white papers, and publications. Interest groups lobby and enlist their members to respond—usually through postcards and email—in rulemaking and legislative policy making. Scientists and others participate in deliberative, small-group, federal advisory committees that give advice to officials. And more public deliberation exercises, when they take place, help to generate opinion formation.

What is lacking, though, are effective ways for government to be responsive to the public, as opposed to corporate interests, large stakeholders, and interest groups. These citizen participation strategies suffer from the problem of “capture”—excessive political influence. Nominees are often subjected to ideological litmus tests. Lobbyists use their ability to participate to stall rather than inform the regulatory process. The use of notice-and-comment periods (in response to agency-proposed rule-making), which solicit individual participation, is typically late in the process, when policies are all but finalized. And people are too busy anyway to do the work of professionals in government.

What will prevent new, networked publics from becoming as entrenched as the lobbying culture that has produced the failures of current politics is that collaborative democracy seeks to proliferate many smaller opportunities for openness. The EPA doesn’t need 100,000 people to work on the issue of asbestos or mercury. While some issues attract a huge number of people, obscure (yet important) decisions are made every day in government that could be made better if technology were used to open participation and oversight to a few dozen experts and enthusiasts—those that blogger Andy Oram calls the microelite: the 5 or 10 or 100 people who understand a discrete question and who are passionate about getting involved in a particular way.[97] Collaborative democracy is about making it easier for such people to find the areas where they want to work and contribute.

Some will counter that more active involvement in government by self-selecting private citizens would only increase the risk of corruption. Their fear is that opening up channels of participation would create a whole new class of online lobbyists and campaigns that participate to serve their own financial interests. Perhaps. But if the practices of twenty-first-century government were designed to split up tasks into many small fact-gathering and decision making exercises, technology would diversify against that risk. It is harder to corrupt a system with many parts. This approach would also make it easier for busy people to participate. And if government decisions were designed to be made in groups, group members would keep each other honest and blow the whistle if corruption occurs.

The primary challenge when engaging in deliberation is to avoid capture and corruption by those who speak with the most influence. In a collaborative governance environment the greatest challenge is one of design: organizing the work most effectively to tap outside expertise. The bureaucrats who design the collaborative processes might be tempted to set them up in such a way as to promote participation by particular vested interests over others. But open processes that enable people to evaluate one another’s participation help to preclude the risks. At the very least, technology makes it possible to organize decision making in ways that might overcome abuses familiar from the offline world. If governance is thought of as a granular and focused set of practices, ways can be designed to delegate greater power to citizens to gather facts, spend money, and participate in making decisions.

Giving ordinary people—as distinct from corporations and interest groups—the right and ability to participate enables them to form new groups better suited to address new problems. Alone, there is not much any one person can do to bring about change or to participate meaningfully and usefully in a policy-making process. But working together a group can take meaningful action. Online groups can also change their collective goals in response to pressing problems more quickly than traditional organizations that lock in their own institutional and individual priorities.

Government need not—it must not—fear new technology and the opportunity it creates to invite participation from those with the experience in the field. Reinventing democracy as collaborative democracy will create work for government. Having a blog requires someone to respond to comments. Posting a wiki demands following the changes as they evolve. Creating a web form to invite input from the public necessitates honing in on the right questions and listening to the resulting answers. Participation will require staffing and technology to manage. But a collaborative culture does not place the burden on government or the public alone to address complex social problems. Instead, by organizing collaboration, government keeps itself at the center of decision making as the neutral arbiter in the public interest and also benefits from the contributions of those outside of government. Joseph Nye explains the collaborative imperative for governments:

The very nature of leadership has changed in today’s interdependent, globalized world. In information-based societies, networks are replacing hierarchies, and knowledge workers are less deferential. Business is changing in the direction of “shared leadership” and “distributed leadership,” with leaders in the center of a circle rather than atop a hierarchy.… Modern leaders need an ability to use networks, to collaborate, and to encourage participation. They need to be able to make decisions within rapidly changing contexts. They need to attract followers into new identities—both individual and social—and provide meaning in a disruptive world of globalization. In short, they need to use the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of force and threat, both at home and in foreign policy.[98]

In other words, collaboration offers a huge potential payoff in the form of more effective government. Effective government, in turn, translates into better decision making and more active problem solving, which could spur growth in society and the economy.

Let’s say that the Environmental Protection Agency wants to pass a regulation protecting a certain endangered species. As currently designed, public input comes too late for anyone but a lobbyist to effectively have a say. But the Internet makes it possible to design methods for soliciting better expertise sooner from private citizens. Or imagine that the United States Postal Service wants to cut its energy bills by 30 percent over the next three years. An online best-practices website would enable the USPS to generate many solutions from crowds of people. Those crowds could include self-selected experts across federal, state, and local government as well as motivated members of the public. Imagine that a series of economic events triggers a crisis of confidence in the economy. Technology could make it possible to track economic data in a more transparent, collaborative, verifiable way.

Innovation in the practices of governance will require investment. But if government can design effective mechanisms—law, policy, and technology—to build the bridge between institutions and networks, it can enhance its legitimacy and value. Look what happened to the entertainment industry. Fearing a loss of ad revenue from consumers’ home taping, the movie studios and television broadcasters initially feared the new tools. They (unsuccessfully) sued the makers of the Betamax personal video recorders (the precursor of the DVD and the VCR) in an effort to put the consumer electronics companies out of the Betamax business altogether.[99] People wanted to watch movies at home and would not be stopped. Eventually, the home video rental market, far from threatening the incumbents, flourished and vastly increased their markets.

Similarly, in response to the advent of digital technologies that reduce the cost of making and distributing nearly perfect copies of music, the record labels proposed legislation to criminalize new forms of copyright infringement. They began suing twelve-year-olds and grandmothers for illegally sharing music files via peer-to-peer networks and filed suit to put the makers of these new digital technologies out of business.[100] But the law is out of step with society’s music consumption practices: while traditional business models wane, iTunes, eMusic and other alternatives innovate and embrace the power of new technology. Instead of cheating or routing around the music laws, these new entrants are helping to reengineer and reshape the industry. If institutions don’t work with the networks, networks will work around them, rendering government practices increasingly disconnected, ineffectual, and brittle.

About the Author

About the Author

Beth Simone Noveck is the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for open government. She directs the White House Open Government Initiative at She is on leave as a professor of law and director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School and McClatchy visiting professor of communication at Stanford University. Dr. Noveck taught in the areas of intellectual property, technology, and first amendment law and founded the law school’s “Do Tank”, a legal and software R&D lab focused on developing technologies and policies to promote open government. Dr. Noveck is the author of Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful (Brookings Institution Press, 2009) and editor of The State of Play: Law, Games and Virtual Worlds (NYU Press, 2006).

[45] Essays in Sociology, Max Weber, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Routledge, 1991.

[46] “In Defense of Regulatory Peer Review,” J. B. Ruhl and James Salzman, Washington University Law Review, Vol. 84, 2006: 1–61.

[47] Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, Philip E. Tetlock, Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 20.

[48] Ibid., p. 15.

[49] The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Scott E. Page, Princeton University Press, 2007.

[54] The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney, Basic Books, 2005.

[55] Government in the Sunshine Act, P.L. 409, 94th Cong. September 13, 1976.

[56] “The Freedom of Information Act,” John Ashcroft, Memorandum for All Heads of Departments and Agencies, October 12, 2001.

[57] “More People See Federal Government as Secretive; Nearly All Want to Know Where Candidates Stand on Transparency,” Sunshine Week, March 15, 2008 (accessed October 2008); Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life, Ted Gup, Doubleday, 2007.

[60] Ibid.

[61] American Inventors Protection Act, P.L. 113, 106th Cong. November 29, 1999.

[62] U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Manual of Patent Examining Procedures, sec. 904.02(c) (8th ed., 2001) (“This policy also applies to use of the Internet as a communications medium for connecting to commercial database providers”); U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, “Patent Internet Usage Policy,” 64 Federal Register (June 21, 1999) (“If security and confidentiality cannot be attained for a specific use, transaction, or activity, then that specific use, transaction, or activity shall NOT be undertaken/conducted”), p. 33,060.

[65] Connecticut Policy and Economic Council, (accessed October 2008).

[66] The Athenaeum: Club and Social Life in London, 1824–1974, Frank Richard Cowell, Heinemann, 1975.

[67] “On the Evolution of Human Motivation: The Role of Social Prosthetic Systems,” Stephen M. Kosslyn, in Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience, edited by S. M. Platek, et al., MIT Press, 2006; “Using Brain-Based Measures to Compose Teams: How Individual Capabilities and Team Collaboration Strategies Jointly Shape Performance,” A. W. Wooley et al., Social Neuroscience, 2 (2007): 96–105.

[68] “Committees of Correspondence of the American Revolution,” Edward Day Collins, Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1901): 245–71.

[69] “Intellectual Property and Free Expression,” lecture, Harvey Anderson, Stanford University, May 27, 2008 (notes on file with author).

[71] “Energy Bill Bans Incandescent Lightbulbs.” For more on mercury in lightbulbs, see the EPA website. For more on the congressional mandate, see “A U.S. Alliance to Update the Lightbulb,” Matthew Wald, New York Times, March 14, 2007.

[72] “A Cloth to Cut the Mercury Risk from Lightbulbs,” Henry Fountain, New York Times, July 8, 2008.

[74] “Series of Tubes”. Also see the Series of Tubes weblog (accessed October 2008). The remark also spawned a graphic, “Series of Tubes as a Tube-map”.

[75] See, for example, Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communications Technologies, Andrew Chadwick, Oxford University Press, 2006.

[77] Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall, Thomas E. Cronin, Harvard University Press, 2006.

[78] “Ross Perot and the Call In Presidency,” Charles Krauthammer, Time, July 13, 1992, p. 84.

[80] “How Might Cyberspace Change American Politics,” Eugene Volokh, Loyola Los Angeles Law Review, Vol. 34, 2001: 1213–20.

[81] The company was Vivarto Inc., founded by Mikael Nordfors. Its website is still online.

[83] Deliberation Day, Bruce A. Ackerman and James Fishkin, Yale University Press, 2004; Debating Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform, James S. Fishkin, Yale University Press, 1991; Public Deliberation: Pluralism, Complexity, and Democracy, James Bohman, MIT Press, 1996.

[84] Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy, Diana C. Mutz, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[85] Why Societies Need Dissent, Cass Sunstein, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 118.

[86] “Promise and Problems of E-Democracy: Challenges of Online Citizen Engagement,” Ann Macintosh and Stephen Coleman, OECD, 2003.

[87] Democracy Online: The Prospects for Political Renewal through the Internet, Peter M. Shane, ed., Routledge, 2004.

[88] “The Right of Public Participation in the Law-Making Process and the Role of the Legislature in the Promotion of This Right,” Karen Czapanskiy and Rashida Manjoo, University of Maryland School of Law Legal Studies, Vol. 42, 2008: 31.

[89] Political Freedom: The Constitutional Powers of the People, Alexander Meiklejohn, Harper, 1960.

[90] “Visions of Ground Zero: The Public; Officials Rethink Building Proposal for Ground Zero,” Edward Wyatt with Charles V. Bagli, New York Times, July 21, 2002, p. A1.

[91] See, for example, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, Howard Zinn, City Lights, 2007.

[92] Starting from Zero: Reconstructing Downtown New York, Michael Sorkin, Routledge, 2003, pp. 57–61.

[93] The Good Citizen: A History of American Civil Life, Michael Schudson, Free Press, 1998.

[94] There are numerous proponents of this “strong” theory of civic engagement: Strong Democracy, Benjamin R. Barber, Princeton University Press, 1984; Democracy and Technology, Richard E. Sclove, Guilford, 1996; Civic Engagement in American Democracy, Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina, eds., Brookings, 1999.

[95] “Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: A Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society,” Jack M. Balkin, New York University Law Review, Vol. 79, 2004: 1–58.

[96] The ideal type of citizens’ group is one that is “composed of representatives of all strata of its community; it would be unbiased, courteous, well-organized, adequately financed, articulate.” Citizens Groups and Broadcasting, Donald Guimary, Praeger, 1975, p. 148.

[98] “Picking a President,” Joseph Nye, Democracy Journal, Fall 2008: 19–28.

[99] Sony Corp. of America. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417 (1984).

[100] Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008 (ProIP Act) S. 3325. “Big Content Gloats as Bush Signs Pro-IP Act,” Nate Anderson, Ars Technica, October 14, 2008; “RIAA Settles with 12-Year-Old Girl,” John Borland, September 9, 2003; “RIAA versus Grandma, Part II: The Showdown That Wasn’t,” Eric Bangeman, December 16, 2007. See also MGM Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913 (2005) (peer-to-peer file-sharing case), and also

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