Five hacks for digital democracy

Beth Simone Noveck in Nature: “…Technology is already changing the way public institutions make decisions. Governments at every level are using ‘big data’ to pinpoint or predict the incidence of crime, heart attack and foodborne illness. Expert networking platforms — online directories of people and their skills, such as NovaGob.org in Spain — are helping to match civil servants who have the relevant expertise with those who need the know-how.

To get beyond conventional democratic models of representation or referendum, and, above all, to improve learning in the civil service, we must build on these pockets of promise and evolve. That requires knowledge of what works and when. But there is a dearth of research on the impact of technology on public institutions. One reason is a lack of suitable research methods. Many academics prefer virtual labs with simulated conditions that are far from realistic. Field experiments have long been used to evaluate the choice between two policies. But much less attention is paid to how public organizations might operate differently with new technologies.

The perfect must not be the enemy of the good. Even when it is impractical to create a control group and run parallel interventions in the same institution, comparisons can yield insights. For instance, one could compare the effect of using citizen commenting on legislative proposals in the Brazilian parliament with similar practices in the Finnish parliament.

Of course, some leaders have little interest in advancing more than their own power. But many more politicians and public servants are keen to use research-based evidence to guide how they use technology to govern in the public interest.

The MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, has started funding a research network — a dozen academics and public servants — to study the possibilities of using new technology to govern more transparently and in partnership with citizens (see www.opening-governance.org). More collaboration among universities and across disciplines is needed. New research platforms — such as the Open Governance Research Exchange, developed by the Governance Lab, the UK-based non-profit mySociety and the World Bank — can offer pathways for sharing research findings and co-creating methodologies….(More)”