Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Two-way transparency

“Transparent government” is the watchword these days – but it’s the transparency of the proscenium arch. The curtain has been drawn aside a little and we can watch the players, but they care little and know less about what’s going on in the audience. The groundlings aren’t asked to shape the play.

It’s important for citizens to be able to see into government; but it’s just as important for government to understand what citizens want. And in a democracy, it’s most important for citizens to influence government.

Web 2.0 is giving participatory democracy a fillip, as online social networks are drafted into energizing voters. However, much of the “we’re listening to you” is still theater: citizens are asked to submit YouTube videos, and a select few are played to simulate that someone is paying attention.

It’s not (just) that politicians don’t want to listen; making sense of the individual opinions of thousands or millions of people is very hard to do in a nuanced way. The dominant method is still counting noses, whether in an election, an opinion poll, or keeping track of how calls from constituents are splitting on a contentious issue. Potential knowledge is boiled away, leaving only numerology at the bottom of the pot.

Advanced computation can help make sense of citizen input. Semantic analysis tools developed to filter spam, mine search queries, collate machine-submitted bug reports, and extract signals intelligence can be applied to provide a narrative. Old technologies should be still be used – and used more intensively. Regulatory agencies should poll citizens, and not just depend on lobbyists and lawyers to tell them what’s important. ICT can also turn citizen input from a burden to a blessing if it becomes a cost-effective way to leverage democratizing innovation into innovative democracy, using all the social networking and idea market tools of Web 2.0.

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