Beth Simone Noveck’s Modest Proposal

“Ordinary citizens have more to offer than voting or talking. They can contribute their expertise and, in so doing, realize the opportunity to be powerful.”  ~ Beth Simone  Noveck
Open government and Collaborative Democracy in the Network Society

As part of my independent study on open government, I’ve been devouring Beth Simone Noveck‘s new book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More PowerfulNoveck is on leave as a professor at New York Law School and currently leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative as deputy chief technology officer for open government. Her 2005 blog post, “Peer to Patent: A Modest Proposal” lead — only 23 months after it was first published — to the federal government’s first open social networking project, radically changing the patent review process and catalyzing the open government movement.

Open government is somewhat of an amorphous term with varied meanings, depending on who you’re talking to and in what context. In a later post, I’ll go deeper into Noveck’s discussion of three elements that, for her, characterize open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration.” But first, some thoughts on the power of ideas, blogging and the Read/Write web (also known as web 2.0).  And, then a bit of background on peer-to-patent (wikipedia entry, official website).


[Hat tip: I picked Wiki Government for my independent study because Lucy Bernholz highly recommended it to me on Twitter.  I first learned of the book in her blog post, “Open Philanthropy: A Modest Manifesto.“]

Idea Power in the Web2.0 Ecosystem after the jump



Idea Power in the Web2.0 Ecosystem

My copy of Wiki Government is chalk full of underlined sentences and notes I’ve made in the margins. In fact, I’m finding it difficult not to underline every sentence with my red pen!  Out of all the ideas Noveck articulates in her book, the thing that keeps rattling around in my mind the most is how peer-to-patent was born. Noveck had a good idea.  And instead of keeping that idea to herself, she articulated it publicly in this blog post.  She didn’t write an academic paper and get it published in some obscure journal.  She typed up her thoughts and clicked “publish,” making her ideas available to anyone who has access to the internet.

This struck me for two reasons.  First, think about all of the ideas you have every day or every week. Good ideas. Ideas that have the potentiel to make a real difference if only they were shared and acted upon.  Very few of us remember that we’re significant and powerful enough to effect transformative change, and that our ideas matter. Noveck decided to put her idea out there for the world to see and it took off! Her “modest proposal” then lead to the US federal government truly engaging — for the first time — in what she calls collaborative democracy (more on that later).

Second, it was Noveck’s personal blog, a product of the participatory web 2.0, where the idea was born.  Web 2.0’s infrastructure, the blogosphere in this case, allowed for (if not helped inspire) this first-of-its kind collaboration between government and citizenry. Out of Web 2.0, Gov 2.0 was born. This may sound obvious, but I like thinking about how ideas and phenomena grow and build on one another. Yeah, yeah, sure…of course it came out of her blog. But that’s just it, of course it came out of her blog!


Peer to Patent

Noveck offers Peer-to-Patent as a how-to guide and case study in collaborative government.  Rather than simply explaining the particular success of that project, Noveck articulates that the “broader mandate is to use technology to upend the outdated theory of institutional expertise and replace it with collaborative practices for gathering and evaluating information and transforming raw data into useful knowledge (pg 21).”  In other words, she uses Peer to Patent as a new model of how government can function.  That is, by enlisting citizens in the work of government and by mining ideas from the huge amass of knowledge that exists in the public at large.

The Problem
Huge inefficiencies plague the process individuals and companies must wade through to obtain a patent.  As Noveck writes, the “pace of patent examination [is] out of sync with the pace of innovation,” and that’s putting it mildly!

Applicants wait upwards of three years (and in certain fields closer to five years) to receive their first notice from the Patent Office, and that’s usually just the beginning of a series of communications that will be exchanged before the patent is finally granted or rejected. (pg 5)

What’s more — the 5,500 patent examiners are not experts in the fields relating to the inventions they’re processing.  Case in point, they might “not necessarily know much about cutting-edge, object-orientated programming languages” nor anything about “bioinformatic modeling of the human genome.”  Yet the patent examiner (at least in theory) “must obtain the relevant technological antecedents– known as prior art — to judge if an invention is enough of an advance over what preceded it to warrant a patent.”  How does an examiner do this, especially when, more often then not, she works alone with only “fifteen to twenty hours to research the patent application and write up her findings?” The short answer: not very well. Examiners have access to governmental databases and academic journals, but this resource is wholly inadequate:


The information needed is not always found in traditional government or academic sources.  Inventors in cutting-edge fields may discuss their work on the web rather than in print. John Doll, the U.S. commissioner of patents, complains of the dispersed databases and inconsistent search protocols that impede examiners’ efforts to decide whether an invention is new, useful, and nonobvious – in a word, patentable. The result is an inefficient, inaccurate process: of the 2 million patents in force in the United States, many would not survive closer-scrutiny. (page 5)

The Solution
“A handful of employees in an institution  – any institution – cannot possess  as much information as the many dispersed individuals who make up a field,” writes Noveck.  She then gives an example of a company who offered $1 million to solve an intractable chemistry problem.  The result?  A lawyer with an aptitude for chemistry solved the problem.  And in less than four hours no less.  Noveck’s idea is simple:  open up the patent review process to actual experts whether they be “professionals” in a chosen field, or anyone with a lot of knowledge on a particular topic.  Let these self-selecting volunteers do the work of gathering and submitting appropriate background research to a patent examiner.  The examiner then has some of the best information upon which to evaluate whether or not an invention is patentable. She writes about her initial ideas,

What if the patent examiner worked with the broader community? What if the public augmented the official’s research with its own know-how? What if the scientific and technical expertise of the graduate student, industry researcher, university professor, and hobbyist could be linked to the legal expertise of the patent examiner to produce a better decision? What if, instead of traditional peer review, a process of open review were instituted, wherein participants self-select on the basis of their expertise and enthusiasm.  What if, instead of a social network like Facebook, a scientific and technical expert network were built.  I nicknamed this “peer-to-patent.” (pages 5-6)

Noveck articulated these further in her plog post “Peer-to-Patent: A Modest Proposal.” She relays in her book that it was there that,

I proposed that the Patent Office transform its closed, centralized process and construct an architecture for open participation that unleashes the “cognitive surplus” of the scientific and technical community.  I called on the Patent Office to solicit information from the pubic to assist in patent examination and, eventually, to enlist the help of smaller, collaborating groups of dedicated volunteers to help decide whether a particular patent should be granted.  Through this sort of online collaboration, the agency could augment its intelligence and improve the quality of issued patents.  (page 7)

How It Works
The ideas Noveck put forth is not only revolutionizing the patent process, it has the potential to eventually change the way government functions in society.   But how does per-to-patent actually work in practice?  Noveck offers up the following explanation:

[T]he Peer-to-Patent website solicits the pubic to submit information — namely prior art — relevant to evaluating a pending application.  Because participating in the process requires enthusiasm and expertise, those who respond to the Peer-toPatent invitation are self-selecting volounteers. Anyone can join but only an expert would. Participation requres working on an application in collaborative teams. Several team members might research the application, uploading relevant publications and suggeestions for further research for use by the patent examiner. Others might comment on the relevance of submitted pieces of prior art.  Following online discussion, each team vets the submissions made by its members. The group votes on which ten submissions are most relevant.  Those are then forwarded to the Patent Office. (page 12)

For Future Discussion

This post is getting much too long and I’m just beginning to dive into the themes of Wiki Government.  Ideas I hope to develop and discuss in future posts include:
  • Noveck’s teasing out of open government’s three distinct yet related facets: transparency, participation, and collaboration.
  • Collaborative democracy as defined by Noveck.
  • Noveck’s distinction between crowdsourcing and collaboration.
  • The importance design plays in facilitating effective collaboration.
  • Direct democracy (voting) versus collaborative democracy.
  • Deliberative democracy (discussing and debating public policy) versus collaborative democracy.



















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6 responses to “Beth Simone Noveck’s Modest Proposal

  1. Pingback: Me, We and Junto « Corazon y Mente

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