This blog is about collaboration –both as a means, and as an end-- in open governance. NYU's GovLab gives the following definition of governance: how institutions analyze information and make decisions to solve collective problems. We can consider openness from the perspective of open-source software, in which the source code (information/data) is free and open, and is freely distributable (sharable). There is, however, no definition of open governance, or open government. It is a project in the making. Collaborative practices may not only be the means to open governance, but may turn out to be the end. This is the reason I use “open governance” and not “open government” --because I believe our new social and technological infrastructures will transform problem-solving into a continuous, collaborative process. In his book, The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, has posited that “the change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural” (Benkler, 14). This structural change is well expressed by collaborative governance.
The need/impetus for collaboration:
We live now in a networked age in which people are not only passive receivers of information, but also active producers. Information is not simply produced and stored, but also actively disseminated, managed, and analyzed. Information can be turned into knowledge, which can be turned into civic action. In his TED talk on invention in the context of patent law, former Tony Blair advisor Charles Leadbeater points out that the traditional approach to invention –taking information and turning it into something new-- is “based on the idea that the inventor knows what the invention is for”. The traditional approach –what Benkler calls “the industrial information economy of the twentieth century” (Benkler, 15) –to information and to intellectual property is outdated because it denies the active role of enthusiasts and experts alike in re-appropriating information in various contexts. This variegated activity is a key feature of collaborative governance.
In Deepening Democracy, Archon Fung posits that “institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century --representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration-- seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century” (Fung, 3). This reminds me of what Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 1: “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force”. We have the means to solve our own problems, and now we have the means to do so together. Collaborative governance simultaneously responds to (overly rigid) insular bureaucratic forms of decision-making and (overly flexible) political jostling which leaves real citizens' concerns by the wayside. A diverse collaborative system with many parts can focus on myriad problems much quicker and more efficiently than bureaucracies with institutional imperatives, as well as promote accountability and incorruptibility by virtue of its diversity.
In his TED talk titled “Institutions vs. Collaboration”, Clay Shirky describes the costs of coordinating (groups of) individuals, where coordination has traditionally been achieved through institution-building. Now, the costs of communication have fallen dramatically –anyone can get on Skype and make phone calls for free. Designing for collaborative civic action (and, as Shirky says, collaboration in general) requires a move away from how institutions are traditionally designed. Infrastructures of collaboration should do away with institutional imperatives which prevent the fullest engagement of diverse participants.
Institutions are exclusionary because the institutional method of production or action is one which treats participants as employees –an institution cannot hire everyone, and so it has to make choices. This kind of exclusion is also a feature of traditional governments –government 1.0-- where a reliance on internal experts denies those outside of government the chance to participate, and moreover obfuscates decision-making, so that the public cannot identify areas where more (or different) input could be desirable. In this sense, institutions are inherently unaccountable.
But this kind of institutional planning is remedied by collaboration. Rather than dealing with the institutional infrastructure, the collaborative method deals with whatever issues are at hand, because coordination costs are minimal. The institutional obstacle is visualized in the “long tail” model of distribution, where 25 percent of participants create 75 percent of the content, and the remaining 75 percent of the participants only create 25 percent of the content. Rather than excluding that 75 percent of people –the long tail-- which is the institutional response (and, up until government 2.0, the governmental response), collaborative infrastructures capture the value created by those who contribute less (in terms of content or frequency). The issue at hand transforms from the value of the contributor to the value of the contribution. Collaborative governance makes use of networked power to find good ideas, without having to professionally employ people, and liberates civic value by allowing anyone to contribute however they elect to.
In his book, Cognitive Surplus, Shirky writes about the idea of “human hours” --that is, the amount of total time that humanity possesses. This is an enormous number –7 billion people times 24 hours a day, of which we spend the most time working and sleeping, followed (in the developed world) by time spent watching TV. Collaborative governance takes our free unstructured time and treats it “as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time" (Shirky, 10).
How is collaboration different from deliberation or cooperation?
Collaboration contains deliberation, cooperation, coordination, and communication, but is more than the sum of them. Collaborative governance likewise contains participation, engagement, transparency, and free expression, but amounts to more than these things.
WHEN people collaborate, they work towards a common goal, outcome, or result. Collaboratives are organized with specific purposes in mind and involve targeted participation.
WHEN people cooperate, they work on their own goals, but in tandem. Cooperatives may organize and exist without guidance, although they do so without a common purpose.
Cooperation is an important part of the collaborative process because the spontaneity it contains is crucial tofinding what problems should be subject to further collaborative effort. But governance should be collaborative because its civic nature implies some consensus.
Consensus, though, is not the end-goal of collaborative governance. It is desirable insofar as it organizes participants towards common goals, but consensus does not imply action. In Wiki Government, Prof. Beth Noveck discusses deliberation (as opposed to collaboration) as “a normative, democratic ideal unto itself and a means to the end of enhancing legitimacy in governance” (Noveck, 36) and calls this form of participation “toothless” (Noveck, 37).
WHEN people collaborate, they measure effectiveness through outputs. Collaboration values participation as a means to action, and not simply as an end in and of itself.
WHEN people deliberate, they measure effectiveness through inputs. Deliberation values participation as a normative goal, so that the quality of discussion is more important than what comes out of it.
Deliberation is an important part of the collaborative process because people have to talk to each other and express themselves to get a sense of what might be commonly actionable. But the focus of collaborative governance is on measurable results and efficacy, and not wanton self-expression. Collaboration –focused on those results-- emphasizes targeted expression, and enhances legitimacy in governance by allowing for self-selection.
Collaborative governance, though –what this blog is about, again-- is about civic action with or through government, and not about independent civic action. Prof. Noveck has called this the “.gov brand” --”change.org instead of change.gov” (Noveck, 29). How do we apply lessons of collaborative action in general to the act of collaborative governance?
First, we have to conceive of governance as a process. That process is the sum of many parts –the sum of many smaller processes, which should focus on specific issues or topics. Those smaller processes should have the same character as the whole –like a fractal pattern, where each collaborative process is embedded in larger and larger systems of collaboration.
The engagement of individuals and groups in targeted ways should be combined with self-selection and volunteerism, such that collaborative governance is truly governance as well as truly collaborative. Innovation can be “unlocked” by combining the strengths of government 1.0 –“central coordination, issue framing, and [the] bully pulpit” (Noveck, 18)-- with the strengths of the networked information environment –web 2.0.
How to collaborate:
Inspired by (and drawing from) the last chapter of Prof. Noveck's Wiki Government (P. 171-2), the following are some key features of collaborative decision-making, highlighting what the networked-collaborative-governance process might actually entail.
ASK the right questions. In an article titled “You Can't Just Hack Your Way to Social Change”, Jake Porway contends that “any data scientist worth their salary will tell you that you should start with a question, NOT the data”. Collaboration should be targeted, and questions should be designed so that the problem at hand is clearly understandable, so that non-experts and experts alike can give relevant input.
ASK the right people. Target collaboration for the relevant people, whether based on locality or topic. At the same time, create opportunities for self-selection. Enthusiasts are often “the right people”.
DESIGN the process for the desired end. There should be a common understanding across the collaborative network about the goals in mind. Common goals should not be limiting; they simply serve to moderate the process so that the focus remains on measurable results.
DESIGN for groups, not individuals. Collaboration is not wanton self-expression with no common focus. Groups and the work they do should be interrelated and both be scalable in terms of place and topic.
DIVIDE the work into roles and tasks. Skills should be deployed where they are needed, which means experts and enthusiasts should work on what they want to, and what they are good at. Moreover, participants should have a sense of manageability in the work they do, so that they are actually able to do it. Tasks should also be consequential.
USE a common language. This means there must be some agreement on the definitions, norms, and standards from which the collaboration can grow. Moreover participation should not be competitive, but collaborative, working towards a common goal. The point is well-illustrated in the difference between alchemy and chemistry: one relies on esoterica and secrecy, while the other relies on a shared methodological language and peer review.
USE visualizations. Information as visually displayed on a computer screen gives people a better sense of where they are within the network. Visuals can show what progress has been made, give people feedback about what they (and others) are doing, and reveal areas where progress is lacking, or where skills are not being matched to needs.
CREATE a transparent evaluation process. People who participate in collaborative processes should know how their work fits in within the larger project, and should get a sense of the overall progression of the collaboration.
HARNESS the power of reputation. Evaluate and rate contributions and submissions from participants. Up-vote systems as used by Reddit quickly show what are the most innovative or interesting ideas.
PILOT new ideas. Organize challenges and competitions with prizes, to inspire people, to get people to want to contribute, and so that people's good ideas “bubble-up”. Motivate people to collaborate with extrinsic rewards –money, say. Simply showcasing submissions on a website can motivate participation. Draw on people's pleasure in completing tasks, and commend their contributions.
FOCUS on outcomes, not inputs. Make sure you can measure success. Make it clear how a solution would be implemented. Let the collaborative network evaluate its own products, so as to be clear that collaborative governance is not bound by institutional imperatives like oversight.
We must embrace our collaborative expertise. When we work together to analyze information, make decisions, and solve problems that face us collectively, we are liberated from what we would not be able to do by ourselves. Collaborative governance is a process in which we help each other liberate not just ourselves but our common humanity. By connecting with each other and working together, we unleash inventive, innovative, and creative potential that we do not have alone. This is “COLLIBERATION”.