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Government Needs Smart-sourcing, Not Crowdsourcing

BY Pete Peterson | Tuesday, March 24 2009

The prophet is having second thoughts. In comments that have received remarkably scant coverage on this side of the pond, Clay Shirky, while in London last month promoting the release of Here Comes Everybody in paperback, said the following: “All the rhetoric, including - I'm embarrassed to say - some of mine, has assumed in the past that democratic legitimation is itself enough to regard aggregate public opinion [online] as being clearly binding on the government. I've changed my mind.” This is a momentous admission from someone as influential as Shirky, and timely, as the White House hires former Google exec’s into new positions like the “Director of Citizen Participation,” and considers its web strategy for involving Americans in Federal policy-making. The good people making these decisions at 1600 Pennsylvania have some tough jobs, since the challenges to national level online participation are inherent in both the available web tools, and in the nature of our representative government system.

From the campaign through the transition period participation has been kept to the crowd-sourcing of questions or priorities, which have been, ostensibly, passed on to then candidate (or his staff), and now, President. The crowdsourcing tool, “Moderator” was released by Google last September, and, like the candidate who used it, went from long shot to prime-time in a matter of months. Interestingly, as described by its lead project engineer, Talliver Heath, local governments were the original target market for Moderator. They would use it to elicit and evaluate questions or concerns of local import. In an interview with the tech site, Ars Technica, Heath propounded, “How many city council meetings have you been to? How about school boards? There are always questions you may have about the running of your city, town, state, etc. I believe a public application like Moderator can make civil participation significantly higher in local governments." So from prioritizing policy questions like trash pick-up, and teacher pay, then President-elect Obama, had the tool installed onto his Transition website:

But things were lost in the transition from Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue in two specific areas, which, while they’re evident in all crowd-sourcing efforts were highlighted in the move to the national stage: participation and facilitation. It quickly became evident in several instances that online participants were, to put it nicely, not entirely representative of the United States. Hailed by then Transition-team Co-chair, Valerie Jarrett (now head of the Office of Public Liaison) as coming “directly from the American people,” the “Citizen’s Briefing Book” was an online compilation of crowd-sourced policies, meant to inform the incoming President as to what Americans wanted him to focus on. So what did the “American people” during a time of war and financial crisis want their president to address? Taking two of the top five spots (including the top “vote” getter) were issues related to marijuana legalization. Other popular policy issues were support for online gambling and alternative energy research. Over 500,000 Americans cast over three times as many votes (no “one man, one vote” here) in support of over 40,000 issues.

Who were these “American people”? Well, we don’t know. There were no restrictions on age to participate, so we’re not quite sure how many of these half million respondents were of voting age. Still, even if all were, they would only constitute .2% of voting age eligible Americans – hardly representative of anything. Results from the “Briefing Book” exercise were extolled in the micro-press of the gaming and pro-marijuana communities, which in turn used their focused bullhorns to encourage “voting” on the transition site. The results were quickly discounted by Obama, who has no intention of pushing these policies.

Similar questions of representation and participation were raised when’s “Join the Discussion” section posted the rather innocuous question, “What social causes and service organizations are you a part of that make a difference in your community?”, and waited for feedback. More of a blog/response than a crowd-sourcing effort, the “conversation” quickly degenerated into a rather vicious online altercation between supporters and detractors of Rick Warren – the mega-church pastor selected by Obama to give the invocation at the inauguration. Google “Rick Warren/Join the Discussion/”, and you get back almost 1,000 hits showing various blogs calling on their loyal readers to sign on to the Transition site and offer their opinions. The Transition team had to shut down the online exchange within days.

In both of these instances, the very popular site provided a billboard for extraneous groups to promote their views. Americans more concerned about bank bailouts and troop escalations in Afghanistan had to roll their eyes at seeing such outlying issues rate so highly. This would be a joke if a Sr. White House Advisor didn’t describe the results as the opinions of the “American people,” and if they weren’t being assembled into a briefing document for the President of the United States. and now, are meant to be the internet’s most representative “real estate” where vital questions of public policy can be discussed – not some graffiti-splattered wall on the web’s back streets.

This is not to say that all of’s online involvement campaigns disappeared down back allies. But even the ones that were serious revealed problems in utilizing the web to somehow inform national policy. In the site’s, “Open for Questions” section, Obama’s staff asked Americans to submit their questions on one or more of eight categories (from “Foreign Policy” to “Energy & Environment”), which will then be answered by the President and/or his staff at some point this year. Utilizing Moderator, the crowdsourced questions were both supplied and voted on by just over 103,000 people. The results were announced in January, and while the top questions were more deliberate than aforementioned efforts, we did not derive anything uniquely insightful. Here were the top three:

1. “What strategies other than bailouts can we employ to keep jobs in America?” (Economy)
2. “How do we unlink from our addiction to fossil fuels?” (Economy)
3. “When will President Obama start doing drawback of the Service Members (troops) from Iraq and Afghanistan? It becomes a stress on the families, the soldiers and divorce rates are high.” (Foreign Policy)

Now these are all good questions, but did crowd-sourcing really help uncover a distinct and weighty issue inquiring Americans want their president to consider? Reviewing these results, I am reminded of last year’s CNN/YouTube Debates, which failed to proffer any interesting questions – just interesting people asking those questions.

This, of course, is not the Administration’s fault, but is the nature of national policy-making. The scope of the issues are often so broad and complex, asking the general public to send in question ideas is a bit like sending Paris Hilton in to ask questions of a brain surgeon during surgery: she might look the part in her scrubs and mask, she might even ask a couple interesting questions, but she’s not really helping the surgical team. She’s just…participating.

This takes us to the final, and perhaps most pertinent question regarding the entire online engagement effort: how will the Administration utilize America’s participation? With terminology like “Citizen’s Briefing Book”, “Join the Discussion”, and “Your Seat at the Table” used during the Transition, there was at least a rhetorical commitment to having online submissions somehow inform in policy-making. The homepage for the Office of Public Liaison (OPL) on the new site proclaims that it is “the front door to the White House through which everyone can participate and inform the work of the President.” But in a nation of 300 million people (230 million eligible voters) it is just not realistic to expect our crowd-sourced offerings to be pored over by the President and his staff. Given the results from these exercises during the Transition, I would rather my president and his team spend their time on more productive pursuits…like combing their hair.

Linked to this is the straightforward political question whether the Administration should even consider policy suggestions that run counter to the platform on which the president ran and won. We have already seen him throw the last Citizen’s Briefing Book into the garbage (and for good reason) - what if in a future online discussion about education reform, an overwhelming number of responses support something contrary to what the Administration has proposed? The OPL website says the president supports “stimulating honest dialogue.” Does this mean informing Americans about competing policy views? When the Obama team used to generate “Community Conversations” around health care reform, the leader/participant “Guides”, which could be downloaded from the site, only promulgated the Administration’s plan. This is all understandable politically, but it gives the appearance of an Administration that only supports civic participation, which agrees with stated policy.

In the face of all these challenges to formulating an online participation strategy, I suggest that the White House should “go small, and go home (local)”. The web is a powerful idea creation platform, but as we have seen in enterprises like Wikipedia and countless others, it works best when smart people in specific subject areas are asked to accomplish specific things. At times sounding more oligarchic than democratic, Shirky made similar points in London, telling an audience at the London School of Economics, “If you want to know where new interesting useful ideas are going to come from, don’t look at crowds and don’t look at individuals, look at small groups of smart people arguing with each other. Historically that’s been a big source of change.” This can happen both intra-governmentally and with select groups of citizens. The government can serve a vital role as convener – bringing together smart people from a variety of viewpoints to collaborate and debate online over particular policy initiatives. These policy discussions – whether in wiki or blog format – can be kept transparent and open to the public’s view, but as we have seen during the Transition, these must be controlled in such a way as to prevent hijacking by small, organized groups.

Lastly, the Administration should focus its online engagement efforts at the local level. In a sense this means using tools like Moderator as they were originally intended. The advantage of this strategy is that the content and political decision-making process involved in localized issues tend to be less complex than at the national level. Participants can more readily see the impact they will have on a community concern than a national one. This does not mean the subject of the engagement is not Federal in nature. Many Federal agencies from the EPA to Homeland Security are tasked with conforming policies to cities and regions throughout the country. Answering the “how” question of policy – specifically, “how does that rule fit here?” – can be supported legitimately by online tools.

The Administration can also support cities and states as they attempt to employ these online participation platforms through financial support, developing “Best Practices” criteria, and promoting localities and Federal projects that have effectively involved the public. In this there may not be a direct political benefits for the president, but the indirect benefit – of being perceived as a leader who supports democratic practices throughout the country - would be considerable.

It was the late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once offered sardonically, “Civic Engagement is a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act in a way the public officials desire.” This is a challenge to all governments that involve their citizens in policymaking, including the current Administration. At the same time, recent crowdsourcing efforts have proven an alternative hypothesis in which “non-public individuals” (or small groups of them) who are both non-representative and often unidentified can have unprecedented influence on public policy…if they are permitted. This is the tension, which should be felt by White House officials. I don’t envy them.

Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan organization that supports citizen participation both online and offline in policymaking (his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC). He also lectures on civic engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.