Crowdsourcing Government Listening

The federal government is just beginning to use social media to talk to citizens. What’s needed now, says Web entrepreneur Anil Dash, is a way for government to use social media to listen.

Anil Dash at Web 2.0 Expo
Anil Dash at Web 2.0 Expo, photo by James Duncan Davidson and courtesy O’Reilly Media and TechWeb.

Expert Labs—one of the more intriguing ideas to emerge from this past week’s Web 2.0 Expo in Manhattan—is a new nonprofit that will seek to bridge that gap. Its mission is to use the Web and expert online communities to crowdsource solutions to social problems that state or federal lawmakers either cannot or will not devise by themselves: Dash, a co-founder of Six Apart, was tapped to lead the new effort, a joint project of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the MacArthur Foundation.

Dash says he sees Expert Labs as a way to make sure the smartest people (whether or not they’ve been elected) are always, at least virtually, in the room. “If we can bring the right resources to bear and sufficient numbers of the right experts to help solve our social problems, there really is an order of magnitude increase in the types of problems we’re going to be able to solve,” Dash told Web 2.0 conferees while unveiling the project during a keynote address.

Dash says he is clear that more brains are required in Washington. “No matter how smart the policymakers are in our government—there are many brilliant, passionate people in government—there’s always going to be more experts outside the Beltway,” Dash said. He also says he’s seeking to crowdsource innovation because in Washington, there’s often a lack of quality deliberation. “The tactics [government has used so far] have been holding a closed-door meeting with a half-dozen people for an hour and saying, ‘Well, we’ve talked to the industry experts and now we know how to make good policy,’” Dash said. “But you and I know the Web has changed the way that works. If I can ask my friends on Twitter what pair of headphones I should buy; if I can ask as a business person on Facebook, ‘What’s your response as a consumer of our product?’ then why shouldn’t the government be able to ask those same kinds of questions when shaping policy?”

Since it was unveiled November 18, the project has been getting mixed reviews, the most favorable from the Gov 2.0 crowd, which sees Expert Labs as a way to invite more input into the governmental process. But “smarter” doesn’t always mean inclusive. And if Dash’s effort is mostly aimed at tapping AAAS’s 2,000-plus members, what about the wisdom of the larger crowd? If the expertise being tapped by Expert Labs is limited to the 161-year-old AAAS, what’s to differentiate Expert Labs from any other higher-profile, closed-loop lobbying group in Washington trying to use social media to boost the clout of its members on Capitol Hill?

Further, crowdsourcing headphone recommendations is hardly the same as asking your company’s expert policy group or private engineering create-your-own-social-network service Ning for detailed solutions to the nation’s failing healthcare system, or for the best ways to wind down the war in Afghanistan without creating whole new sets of security threats and political minefields at home and abroad. Indeed, governing is inherently more complex than product innovation; smart isn’t always fact-based, nor wise—nor governable. And to be sure, scientific expertise can inform policy but leadership has always been far more of an art than a science.

Indeed, what’s most intriguing about Dash’s initiative is that it’s an ambitious, well-intentioned effort, one of many, that is seeking to invent new ways to use the Web to boost citizen participation, chiefly from highly specialized communities that haven’t always been tapped for their knowledge. Viva the experiment; after the last eight years, Washington can do with a more enlightened government. But beware the Web’s power, at least in these early days of Gov 2.0, to reward meritocracy and technological prowess at the risk of overlooking those without or less wired. Democracy has always, in theory, sought to raise all boats. Here’s hoping Dash’s experiment—and others like it using social media—also will raise tough questions about elitism and exclusivity, the kind that all of us living in democratic societies will, at some point, have to resolve.

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