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Home Opinion The rise of the citizen expert
Technology • Engagement • Governance

The rise of the citizen expert

Beth Simone Noveck - 04 February 2016

How can data-rich technology drive better citizen engagement and make government more effective?

Does the EU need to be more democratic? It is not surprising that Jürgen Habermas, Europe’s most famous democratic theorist, laments the dearth of mechanisms for “fulfilling the citizens’ political will” in European institutions. The controversial handling of the Greek debt crisis, according to Habermas, was clear evidence of the need for more popular input into otherwise technocratic decision-making. Incremental progress toward participation does not excuse a growing crisis of democratic legitimacy that, he says, is undermining the European project [1].

His complaints about European technocracy echo similar criticisms heard after the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection legislation enacted in the United States in 2010. To address the spectre of another “too-big-to-fail” financial firm collapse like Lehman Brothers, the legislation created an elite Financial Stability Oversight Council comprised of heads of major financial regulatory agencies accountable only to Congress through an annual report.

For participatory democrats like Habermas, opportunities for deliberative democratic input by citizens is essential to legitimacy. And, to be sure, the absence of such opportunities is no guarantee of more effective outcomes. A Greek referendum in July 2015 scuttled European austerity plans.

But pitting technocracy against citizenship is a false dichotomy resulting from the long-held belief, even among reformers, that only professional public servants or credentialed elites possess the requisite abilities to govern in a complex society. Citizens are spectators who can express opinions but cognitive incapacity, laziness or simply the complexity of modern society limit participation to asking people what they feel by means of elections, opinion polls, or social media.

Although seeing technocracy as the antinomy of citizenship made sense when expertise was difficult to pinpoint, now tools like LinkedIn, which make knowhow more searchable, are making it possible for public institutions to get more help from more diverse sources – including from within the civil service – systematically and could enable more members of the public to participate actively in governing based on what they know and care about. It is high time for institutions to begin to leverage such platforms to match the need for expertise to the demand for it and, in the process, increase engagement becoming more effective and more legitimate.

Such software does more than catalogue credentials. The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise so that the person who has taken courses on an online learning platform can showcase those credentials with a searchable digital badge. The person who has answered thousands of questions on a question-and-answer website can demonstrate their practical ability and willingness to help. Ratings by other users further attest to the usefulness of their contributions. In short, it is becoming possible to discover what people know and can do in ever more finely tuned ways and match people to opportunities to participate that speak to their talents.

Matching demand to supply of expertise

Governments routinely turn to the public for help off and online. The European Food Safety Authority, for example, is trying to crowdsource better expertise to address food-borne illness. Since its inception in 2010, federal American agencies have run more than 450 challenges via Challenge.gov, which showcases requests by government agencies to the public to tackle hard problems in exchange for cash prizes and other incentives.

Yet as appealing as an open call might be for tapping into the ideas of smart and willing citizens, it will never transform how we govern. That is because this typical crowdsourcing method fails to match individuals to what matters to them or, in this case, match people to problems based on what they can do.

To make all forms of engagement more effective, we need to increase the likelihood that the opportunity to participate will be known to those who need to participate. If a city really wants to improve the chances of crafting a workable plan for bike lanes, it should be able to reach out to urban planners, transportation engineers, cyclists, and cab drivers and offer them ways to participate meaningfully. When a public organisation needs hands on help from techies to build better websites or data crunching from data scientists, it needs to be able to connect.

Already an accelerating practice in the private sector, where managers want to increase the likelihood of finding employees with the right skills, something they cannot do easily from transcripts alone, public institutions are beginning to try matching the supply to the demand for expertise. This year the World Bank created its own expert network called SkillFinder to index the talents of its 27,000 employees, consultants and alumni. With the launch of SkillFinder, the bank is just beginning to explore how to organise its human capital to achieve the bank’s mission of eradicating poverty.

In the United States, there are early efforts to help civil servants better target expertise among their colleagues at the rank-and-file level. HHS Profiles is a project designed to help the Department of Health and Human Services more quickly find employees, for example, to staff medical device safety review panels.

Giving people outside as well as inside institutions opportunities to share their knowledge could save time, financial resources and even lives. Take the example of PulsePoint, a smartphone app created by the fire department of San Ramon, California. Now used by 1400 communities across the United States, PulsePoint matches those with a specific skill, namely CPR training, with dramatic results.

By tapping into a feed of the 911 calls, PulsePoint sends a text message “CPR Needed!” to those registered members of the public near the victim. Effective bystander CPR immediately administered can potentially double or triple the victim’s chance of survival. By augmenting traditional government first response, PulsePoint’s matching has already helped over 7,000 victims.

As Mark Wilson, neurosurgeon and co-founder of GoodSam – a UK service similar to PulsePoint but that targets off-duty doctors, nurses and police officers – wrote in an email: “Using the same analogy that you are never more than five metres from a spider, we figured in cities you're probably never more than 200m from a doctor, nurse, paramedic or someone able to hold an airway and (if appropriate) perform high quality CPR. The problem was alerting these people to nearby emergencies.”

Such targeting is an invigoration of the opportunity to participate in the life of our democracy beyond going to the ballot box once a year. It deepens and redefines citizenship. When a person comes to the aid of accident victim, she is participating in governance, even if only in a small way. This has nothing to do with support for partisan causes or candidates. It has everything to do with what it means to be a citizen in a contemporary democracy.

In an era in which it is commonplace for companies to use technology to segment customers in an effort to promote their products more effectively, the idea of matching might sound obvious. To be sure, it is common practice in business – but in the public sphere, the notion that participation should be tailored to the individual’s abilities and tethered to day-to-day practices of governing, not politicking, is new.  More accurately, it is a revival of Athenian life where citizen competence and expertise were central to economic and military success.

What makes this kind of targeted engagement truly democratic – and citizenship in this vision more active, robust, and meaningful – is that such targeting allows us to multiply the number and frequency of ways to engage productively in a manner consistent with each person’s talents. When we move away from focusing on citizen opinion to discovering citizen expertise, we catalyse participation that is also independent of geographical boundaries.

Taking citizen expertise seriously: policy recommendations

The first step to creating what Susan Moffitt calls “participatory bureaucracy” is the clear and repeated articulation by world leaders, public intellectuals, activists, and bloggers of the core idea: the imperative to take the capacity and expertise of citizens seriously and to put it to use in service of our democracy.

Given how radical a departure these participatory ways of working are from the closed-door status quo (or the view that participation is limited to voting and opinion polling), we cannot declare, define, and repeat often enough what it could mean to embrace collaboration and co-creation; to make consultation part of operations on a day-to-day basis; to strive for constant conversation with an engaged and knowledgeable public and to reinvent the conception of public service and of the public servant as the steward of such a conversation.

Second, policymakers need to create or update the legal frameworks that dictate how governments get expertise using new technology. The norm in both Europe and the United States is the formation of small committees that meet in person a few times a year and produce a report but cannot avail themselves of new technology to ask questions on a more frequent basis of more distributed experts.

Third, more tech companies also need to build a wider variety of matching tools to tap talent, especially talent within the public service, reliably in the public interest. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, committed to support the creation of a global database of citizen skills. NovaGob and JoinUp are both trying to use technology to help public professionals learn from one another.

Just as King Henry II invented the jury in the twelfth century and thus handed power to citizens in a practical and transformative fashion, we are at the threshold of being able to create these new institutional mechanisms. But that will require going beyond principles and pronouncements to create the expert networking and collaboration platforms that make it possible in practice.

Fourth, changing how we make decisions will depend squarely on having the personnel who embrace openness and collaboration. The recognition of citizen expertise does not mean jettisoning the professionals – far from it. The new civil servant will be able to coordinate multiple channels for dialogue, viewing these processes as core, and not incidental, to the job. The demand for leaders of such conversational organisations should create pressure for new curricula and training to meet the need.

Fifth, private sector employers can accelerate the ability to target expertise and accelerate more participatory governing by going beyond merely asking employees for HR information and, instead, begin to catalogue systematically the unique skills of the individuals within their organisation into public-facing talent banks. Many employers are anyway turning to new technology to match employees (and would-be employees) with the right skills to available jobs. How easily they could develop and share databases with public information about who has what experience while at the same time protecting the privacy of personal information.

Consequences of the failure to innovate

These technologies of expertise make it possible to go beyond the proxies of expertise like credentials or professional membership, which have led to attenuated forms of advising and a resulting distrust of experts and the governments they serve. They point to a future in which it is possible – in concrete, actionable fashion – to unlock expertise within government; credentialed expertise and non-traditional forms of distributed know-how outside of government.

Although in many places, we enjoy well-functioning government institutions run by competent professionals, the failure to take advantage of new data-rich tools to enable government to reliably get expertise – credentialed, skilled and experiential – imposes a significant opportunity cost. The greatest challenge of our time is to create political institutions innovative enough to tackle increasingly complex issues from ensuring economic stability to stopping terrorism to saving the planet. Closed-door ways of working rob us of the innovative ideas, robust talents, hard work, and diverse perspectives that are vital to making government more effective.

Beth Simone Noveck is a former United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative. A professor at New York University and the director of The Governance Lab, she is the author of Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing

References:

Jürgen Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy (Polity Press: 2015). See also Jeremy Waldron, “The Vanishing Europe of Jürgen Habermas” in The New York Review of Books, October 22, 2015, 70-72.




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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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