Wiki-gov, special interests, and wiki-regs

by on May 26, 2008 · 10 comments

So I finally had a chance to read Beth Simone Noveck’s article on wiki-government about which Jim has previously posted. The idea is to take tools of mass collaboration that have given us Wikipedia and Linux and apply them to the development of policy. Like the encyclopedias and operating systems of the past, policy development is now often the exclusive domain of government experts. Noveck coins the term “civic software” to refer to collaboration tools aimed at policy.

While I’m a fan of the power of crowds (see my recent paper on “crowdsourcing government transparency”) I’d like to take issue with one minor point of her plan. She critiques our current system of experts saying, “Sometimes these pre-selected scientists and outside experts are simply lobbyists passing by another name.” (I’d change “sometimes” to often.) The implication is that a mass collaborative process might help limit the influence of special interests in policy-making. How? The wiki-wonks, Noveck suggests, won’t be limited to appointed pros:

People have no option to self-select on the basis of enthusiasm, rather than being chosen on the basis of profession. Even when not unduly subject to political influence, the decision as to who participates is based on institutional status. Those who may have meaningful contributions to make–graduate students, independent scientists, avid hobbyists, retired executives, and other consultants in the “free agent nation”–fall outside the boundaries of professional institutions and status and will of necessity be excluded, regardless of their intellectual assets.

But isn’t that what lobbies are? The most enthusiastic on a given issue? The same way ornithologists or passionate bird watchers are the ones writing the Wikipedia entries about robbins, it seems to me that special interests will be the most active in shaping any wiki-policy. As Hillary Clinton likes to say, lobbyists “represent real Americans.” I don’t think wiki-government can meaningfully diminish special interest influence.

That said, Noveck’s Peer-to-Patent pilot program with the USPTO is an excellent idea. I especially like how the community chooses what gets sent to the Patent Office:

The community not only submits information, but it also annotates and comments on the publications, explaining how the prior art is relevant to the claims of the patent application. The community rates the submitted prior art and decides whether or not it deserves to be shared with the USPTO. Only the 10 best submitted prior-art references, as judged on the basis of their relevance to the claims of the patent applications by the online review community, will be forwarded to the patent examiner.

I’d love to see something like this for regulations. There’s no reason why we must wait for a government pilot program to do this. Maybe we can set up a wiki where the community can collaborate on a comment on a proposed agency rulemaking and the finished product is submitted to the docket. There’s no such thing as a neutral point of view when it comes to policy, so the wiki would have to have some first principles the community agrees to, or maybe a mechanism for developing several opposing comments. Thoughts?

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