Reputation Based Governance

Much has been written about Larry Lessig’s famous “code is law” paradigm, where software code is seen as a regulator that threatens our liberty in cyberspace. Less however is written about how software code can help enhance policy making in a smarter and less intrusive manner (Nick Grossman may call this Regulation 2.0).

One such approach is so-called “Reputation-based Governance” – the title of a 2011 book by Lucio Picci, Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna. In the book, Prof Picci argues that “an intelligent use of widely available Internet technologies would strengthen reputational mechanisms and significantly improve public governance”. In essence, the question at hand is how to leverage reputation or rating systems, used for on-line transactions by E-bay or more recently the car service Uber, to re-imagine governance mechanisms. The book is based upon previous articles, published in for instance First Monday, where he developed the connection between reputation systems and participatory governance (including participatory budgeting):

To the extent that reputation–based governance gives voice to the people who are affected by the policies chosen by elected officials, and that it provides a framework to increase the accountability of the actors of governance, it can be seen as a set of procedures that, broadly speaking, make governance more democratic. Here, the effect on the “quantity and quality” of democracy is through the presence of ex post incentives: administrators and politicians would anticipate the increased level of accountability of their actions, and ex ante would presumably listen more to the needs of the people.

Reputation–based governance also lends itself to an increase of participation by allowing forms of mixed direct–representative democracy, such as the ones that have been adopted, albeit without a central role of the Internet, in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and in many other places around the worlds, to create a “participative budget” (Baiocchi, 2005). In fact, the availability of an information system as the one here envisioned would lend itself to innovative participative practices, where appropriate procedures allow the people also to express their opinion on prospective policies and to contribute to forms of collaborative design of policy options.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Gretchen Gano, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, reviews Prof. Picci’s book. In the review she also refers to the edited volume by Mark Tovey and Hassan Masum, which contains a chapter by Picci: The Reputation Society. Craig Newark (Craigslist) opens that book (“The Reputation Society”) referring to reputation as part of the “immune system of democracy”:

“Once the bugs are worked out, reputation and trust might be a key part of the immune system of democracy–a set of technologies and practices that help power, influence, and legitimacy to flow toward those who are willing and able to tackle the challenges that affect us all.”

In her review Gano has two main concerns. One relates with reputation systems being “technologies of legislation”. The other relates to the privacy concerns when using reputation for regulation:

“Picci approaches his subject with the conviction that careful design of reputation systems to account for individual behavior and organizational culture can utilize the strengths of online interactions to educe direct democratic exchange between citizens and public administrators. This claim is interesting to consider in the context of the phenomenon of “path dependency” in complex technologies, or the persistent influence of residual features of a technology on social and political choices. … Even with well-researched design, reputation systems will fix and privilege a particular set of interactions and behaviors between constituents and public institutions that will filter out or obscure other types of exchanges. The system will advantage some citizens and disadvantage others, and as the system becomes more complex and interconnected, this form of “legislation” will become difficult to discern and (potentially) hard to dispute. …”

“A second concern about implementing online reputation systems for governance has to do with an unacknowledged asymmetry of access to online information that relates to online identity. Picci recognizes astutely that reputation-based governance could precipitate a “shift toward integrated and highly institutionalized statistics” that would make policy-related information easily available (p. 98). Statistics of this sort are currently difficult and costly to collect. Picci lays out the idea that “raw” policy-related data could be made available “horizontally,” supporting an idea now prevalent in the literature that openness itself increases the potential for democratic participation. …Picci’s model capitalizes on the fact that opportunity cost for facilitating public involvement in policymaking goes down as more and more government publication and business happens online, and because the trend is to make this business “open.” What this model does not account for well is the connection between spotty legal protections for the collection and aggregation of personal data online and the potential impact of uncertain personal privacy on the development of reputational systems. Picci’s model assumes personal privacy protections and questions whether public administrators will chafe at systems that link their personal roles in the policy process to policy mechanisms. Picci asserts that treating this topic fully would require an additional book (p. 177)…”

Of interest is that Gano does not refer to the on-line dispute mechanisms that exist when reputation challenges emerge (developed by, for instance, Prof Ethan Katsh and used by E-Bay, WIPO and other organizations). Nor does she take stock of the emerging on-line services that try to manage reputation such as Reputation.com.

For those interested in learning more, Hassan Masum, co-editor with Mark Tovey of “The Reputation Society”, and author of the Manifesto for the Reputation Society suggests the following further reading on his blog (descriptions by Hassan Masum)

General reading:

The Future of Reputation – book on “gossip, rumor, and privacy on the Internet”. People Will Talk – book on the science behind animal and human reputation. TOOL: The Open Opinion Layer – a vision of an open infrastructure for sharing opinions and reputations. Wild West 2.0 – book on protecting your online reputation.

Technical reading:

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