So I was interested to see the latest Conservative Party experiment in crowdsourcing. The Party has obtained a leaked copy of a government report on public sector IT, and has published it on a website called Make IT Better, with the following statement.
"We want to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed. In the post-bureaucratic age, we believe that crowdsourcing and collaborative design can help us to make better policies."
As it happens, I do have some reactions to the leaked government report, which I may cover elsewhere, but what I want to cover here is not what the next government's IT policy should be, but the much more fundamental question "how policy should be designed".
The production of policy is an inescapably political process. In several recent cases, we can see how ministers attempt to steer an uncomfortable path between public opinion on the one hand and expert advice on the other.
- Bank bonuses. Banking experts insist that large bonuses are required to keep the banks operating effectively, but popular opinion is largely hostile to this proposition.
- Drug classification. Scientists argue that drug classification should be based on the evidence of harm caused by each drug, but politicians fear that this would be politically dangerous and would "send the wrong message".
- ID cards, databases and so on. At first, public opinion largely supported such schemes, in the belief that these security mechanisms would provide reliable protection against a range of social ills including illegal immigration and terrorism. However, several highly respected security experts have pointed out the flaws in the government schemes, and have indicated a strong likelihood that the costs will be far higher than the official estimates. Public opinion now seems to be shifting against these schemes.
It would be crazy to say either that public opinion should always trump expert opinion, or that expert opinion should always trump public opinion. And of course "public opinion" and "expert opinion" are not two separate worlds, but there are strong links between them. Thus opinion is rarely simple and consistent, but may contain vigorous disagreement. However, that cannot be an excuse to ignore opinion. Politicians cannot and must not abdicate from this arena.
What's the relevance of social media to this process? There are two important points here.
Firstly, social media provide platforms for self-appointed experts of all kinds to share and attempt to mobilize their opinions. Sometimes these opinions can strike a chord with a broader audience, and feeds into a movement that subverts the established policy - whether by fostering popular suspicion about scientific issues (such as GM crops and mass vaccination), or by mobilizing local opposition to some central funding decision (such as closing a well-loved hospital).
Secondly, governments have traditionally received expert advice from a relatively small elite of professional scientists and businessmen. This has the result of pushing policy in certain directions, often to suit the vested interests of powerful lobbies. But these vested interests are increasingly hard to conceal from the public gaze (thanks in part to social media - think Trafigura), and public opinion can sometimes be roused against these vested interests (as we have seen in the case of bank bonuses). So some kind of crowdsourcing might conceivably offer alternative sources of advice.
There is an important trust issue here as well. Governments are not trusted to spend large amounts of money on IT; anyone who reads the IT press (Computer Weekly, The Register) will be able to quote lots of reasons for this lack of trust. This isn't just an IT issue of course: as Stephanie Flanders, the BBC's economics editor, puts it, "We all believe the savings are there to be had. We just don't trust the government to find them." (Efficiency Trap, 7 December 2009)
Crowdsourcing perhaps offers the possibility of forging a different kind of trust. So the challenge is not to find a better way of generating input for a traditional strategy report, but to find a better way of doing strategy. Politicians may wish to regard certain areas of policy as being purely technological (and not political at all, hem hem), and therefore be willing to delegate these policy areas to "friendly" technocrats, but this is essentially a Faustian pact in which the technocrats (generally senior representatives of the major IT firms) promise to solve all the technical problems in return for a shed-load of cash. Some politicians may have gone along with this kind of deal in the past, but there is an increasingly blatent history of project failure and cost over-runs. (Today it was announced that the NHS IT System is being "scaled back" [BBC News, 6 December 2009].) So there is a major strategic risk here that can no longer be swept under the carpet.
The political challenge for politicians in these situations is to forge a constituency that will support productive action. Not a small club of powerful players, but a broad range of stakeholders with varying levels of power, proximity and interest - and also a wide range of social ties to the people who will vote in the next election. That's the lesson of social media that politicians should learn from Barack Obama: use of the Internet not as a one-sided fund-raising mechanism but as a way to build a new kind of constituency.
And that's where I think the Conservative experiment in crowdsourcing should go - not just collecting negative comments from which to score debating points against the Government, but developing an entirely new way of producing policy out of a genuine conversation with well-informed public opinion. Not easy by any means, but (given the present situation) it has to be worth trying.