The Obama administration wanted to open up government to citizen input. Why hasn’t it worked?

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
June 20, 2016

Beth Simone Noveck is the Jerry Hultin Global Network Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. Her new book, “Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing,” was published by Harvard University Press. I asked her five questions by email about the book’s major arguments.

HF: Your book argues that the challenge for government has changed so that the real problem is not trying to limit corruption in the nineteenth century. Instead, it’s bringing new forms of expertise — including the expertise of ordinary citizens — into the governmental process. What are the reasons that you believe this will help?

BN: To be clear, the word “ordinary” may be a little misleading. The fact is that expertise — including credentials, practical know how, and lived experience — are widely distributed in society. Yet our public institutions were designed in the 19th and 20th centuries when, due to the limits of communications technology, it was necessary to rely on the so-called best and brightest, who were hired into bureaucratic institutions. This allowed the government to make decisions and create policies from a central location.

The reality of the Internet era is that we now have opportunities that we didn’t have in the nineteenth century, to draw on the expertise of citizens and experts outside the government. If we want to do this, however, we need to re-design institutions so that they become adept at identifying and finding expertise, fostering conversations with those inside and outside of government, and bringing that expertise to bear for the public interest. Today, those in government don’t have access to these kinds of conversations. This is one of the key reasons they rely on lobbyists so much — much of lobbyists’ power lies in their ability to offer authoritative-seeming advice and solutions. The longer we put off reforming government to take advantage of citizen expertise, the longer we will have to depend on lobbyists, who unsurprisingly have their own interests.

HF: The Obama administration has tried to introduce programs to make the policy process more open, such as its system for online petitions. Your book suggests that these efforts haven’t had very substantial consequences to date. Why is this so?

BN: Many governments at the federal, state and local level are beginning to use the Internet to engage people from outside by such means as electronic petitions or “suggestion box” websites. The most notable example is the White House’s We the People site. The good side of these petitions websites is that they offer a new way for members of the public to draw attention to an issue. However, there are limits too. Specifically, it is often hard for policymakers to act on these petitions. What they usually provide is a naked demand that the government do something, without any of the necessary evidence, know how or instructions for how to do it. The government really uses these sites to ask people their opinion, rather than to draw on the public’s knowhow. As a result, the petitions usually don’t go anywhere.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post