On President Obama’s first day in office, he signed a decree. The Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government promised a new way of doing things.
“Agencies should use innovative tools, methods and systems to cooperate among themselves,” he wrote. This applies “across all levels of government, and with non-profit organisations, businesses and individuals in the private sector.”
What does this mean? That government should use tech to crowdsource ideas, share updates, and let sunlight into all levels of the executive.
Obama brought Beth Simone Noveck into the White House to oversee this initiative. Seven years on, she notes how Americans became disillusioned with government’s approach. The Snowden revelations gave perceptions of “duplicity and hypocrisy”, she believes, while trust in government keeps plummeting.
In a new book – Smart Citizens, Smarter State – Noveck sets out recipes for improving citizen trust. She exclusively spoke with GovInsider to talk about her proposals.
Public engagement, she believes, has often been done in “remarkably inefficient” ways. For example, governments often asks for opinions and hopes the right people reply – what Noveck calls the “open call”.
Targeting specific communities can improve consultation, she believes. “Technologies of expertise” have emerged which show new voices and different perspectives, filtering out vested interests, corporate lobbyists, abuse and a herd mentality.
For example, she points to the Duolingo app. This shows users their progress in learning a language, and provides a digital badge that displays their skills. Noveck is currently 7% fluent in Spanish – a long way to go yet.
The government probably shouldn’t reach out to her for advice on its Spanish language programmes. Apps like Duolingo make it easier for public servants to find people who can genuinely help them make better decisions and design better services, Noveck explains.
These schemes, and the technologies which underpin them, don’t just use traditional markers of expertise like degrees or job titles. Instead they use self-declaration and peer endorsement alongside official records.
This still allows governments to access a much more diverse pool of knowledge than just asking a local university or think tank. “Expertise is not synonymous with credentials and status,” Noveck says. “In many cases it’s about skills and lived experience. The know-how [governments need] might come from surprising places; might come precisely from those people who are not in your Rolodex.”
“The know-how governments need… come precisely from people who are not in your Rolodex”.
Take Sao Paolo’s Agents of Open Government scheme. The city asked its citizens to volunteer to train public servants in one of four areas like collaborative technology, or transparency and open data. Around 200 people applied, and of those people chosen to become citizen teachers, 42% are women and 40% are from minority backgrounds. This is a much more diverse pool than usually advises government.
Improving your own administrations
Novek also argues that tech can also “reach within, and across, the civil service to tap diverse expertise that’s hiding in plain sight,” Noveck says.
In New York, for example, the Mayor’s Office has set up a Volunteer Language Bank, which allows staff to register the languages they can speak. They can then be called upon to provide translation services or language support when a professional translator would be too expensive or is not available.
Then there’s the World Bank’s SkillsFinder, an online network which allows members to search for people within the World Bank group using criteria such as geography, projects or specialisation. Profiles on the SkilsFinder are built initially from institutional data such as HR records. Individuals can add more information about their skills and projects, and, just like on LinkedIn, this information can be supported by endorsements from colleagues.
Technology can help search for that non-traditional expertise, but if governments hope to really make the most of this opportunity, they will need to do more than simply build or use talent databases. In her book, Noveck talks of designing institutions which are capable of taking input from outside.
What would the characteristics of such an institution be? Noveck focuses on the need to “overcome cultural resistance” to greater engagement. An organisation must foster “the belief that people are smart, that they possess expertise and that they will share it if asked,” she says.
Alongside this, there must be a culture of asking and experimenting to find out what kind of engagement works best, and under which circumstances.
“Above all,” she says, organisations must foster “the belief that asking people actually leads to better outcomes.” All this will require strong leadership. Managers must make it clear that a more open approach will actively help staff in their job.
Getting the best out of engagement
Is there more that government can do to foster participation from citizens? “Yes,” says Noveck “and we need to answer that question empirically. The truth is that we’ve been asking people’s opinions for so long without good effect that we are right to be skeptical. That’s why it is important to try and test and try again to find out how and when to engage.”
For Noveck, truly smart cities tap citizen expertise as frequently as sensor data. “The greatest asset in intelligence in our cities and communities comes from the people who live in those places,” she says. “Especially when it comes to making sense of big data, we need the insight that comes from people combined with insight from machines. The two of them together is what will make smart cities.”
Governments are “doing a lot to invest in the data infrastructure,” she continues, “ but without investing in the conversational infrastructure – our processes and tools and ability to talk to people to get their lived experience, their insight, their ideas – we miss an opportunity.”
Officials often talk enthusiastically about open government, but these initiatives have achieved remarkably little. Countries like Russia, for example, have signed up to international agreements, but then invaded their neighbours and cracked down on dissent.
For Noveck, it isn’t about the numbers. Instead, the future is about targeted engagement, continued experimentation, and social platforms that increase officials’ expertise.
All levels of government can better include citizens. And technology is just part of the answer – structural reform is by far the bigger challenge.