Beth Noveck is director of Obama’s open government initiative. (See a National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation report on a recent White House meeting.) This essay appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of the journal Democracy and is the basis for a forthcoming book.
Our institutions of governance are characterized by a longstanding culture of professionalism in which bureaucrats – not citizens – are the experts. Until recently, we have viewed this arrangement as legitimate because we have not practically been able to argue otherwise. Now we have a chance to do government differently. We have the know-how to create “civic software” that will help us form groups and communities who, working together, can be more effective at informing decision-making than individuals working alone. We know from James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, as well as Simon and Schuster’s new MediaPredict project (which encourages readers to guess which manuscripts will become best-sellers), that technology can be used to aggregate predictions. But Peer-to-Patent is teaching us that we can go beyond the tallying of votes. While the general public has good instincts about value-based decisions and could be engaged better to identify “big mistakes” (such as egregiously unfair media ownership rules), there are specific people out there who possess specific information about patents or trucks or chemicals whom we can now incorporate into our decision-making. …
By being explicitly experimental with new forms of digital institution-building, we have an opportunity to increase the legitimacy of governmental decisions. The tools – increasingly cheap, sometimes free – will not replace the professionals. Technology will not, by itself, make complex regulatory problems any more tractable, or eliminate partisan disputes about values. What this next generation of civic software can do, however, is introduce better information by enabling the expert public to contribute targeted information. In doing so, it can make possible practices of governance that are, at once, more expert and more democratic.
[Update: Also see Wired How-To Wiki for suggestions on opening up government data.]
[Update: Beck Novek was interviewed on WNYC’s On the Media.]
So what the peer to patent system does is it recognizes that the best expertise isn’t always the official who sits in the patent office or who sits in any government agency. The person who has the best knowledge about, let’s say, a new database technology or a new cancer curing drug is going to be the person who’s working in that industry. It’s the graduate student who is writing his or her Ph.D. around that topic.
And so if we can tap the intelligence and expertise of those people, we can both speed up the review, but, more important, we can get the best information available so that we’re only enacting the best quality patent applications that truly deserve a patent.
[Update: See also the article on networked publics.]