Noveck on Collaborative Democracy

My favorite chapter in Beth Simone Noveck’s book, Wiki Government, is her second. (You should see all the underlined passages, stars, and notes in my copy!) In this chapter she critiques the “outdated theory of participatory democracy that drives the design of government institutions” and discusses the theoretical underpinnings of what she terms, “collaborative democracy.” When I bought Open Government (published by O’Reilly Media), I happily noticed I wasn’t alone in my admiration of this chapter.   The editors chose it for their book as well.

Direct Democracy
Noveck begins with a brief discussion of direct democracy, that is, citizens participating in government through voting.  She notes that despite initial excitement for e-voting when the World Wide Web first emerged, it never gained traction.  “Security and reliability problems” are perhaps the biggest barriers to it’s widespread adaption. (Noveck doesn’t touch on this, but I will. Four words: voter disenfranchisement, Florida, 2000). However, she notes a much larger issue:
[T]he notion of widespread, push-button democracy in whatever form does little to address how to instituionalize complex decisions in particular cases.  It is no wonder that the vision of participation by direct democratic voting has not taken off. (page 36)
Deliberative Democracy
Noveck devotes much more time critiquing deliberative democracy (the discussing and debating of public policy by the whole community, not just politicians).  She’s wise to do this since, as she puts it:
Deliberative democracy has been the dominent view of participation in contemporary political theory. At its center is the Habermasian notion that the reasoned exchange of discourse by diverse individuals representative of the public at large produces a more robust political culture and a healthier democracy. (page 36)

Her critique? That it’s essentially “toothless.”

[D]eliberative democracy’s proponents assume that people are generally powerless and incapable of doing more than talking with neighbors to develop opinions or criticizing government to keep it honest…. [I]n practice, civic talk is largely disconnected from power. It does not take account of the fact that in a web 2.0 world ordinary people can collaborate with one another to do extraordinary things.

The anthropology of deliberative participation leads to practices designed to present the finished work of institutional professionals, spark public opinion in response, and keep peace among neighbors engaged in civic discourse. The goal is not to improve decisionmaking for “there is no one best outcome; instead, there is a respectful communicative process.” ….Deliberative democracy relegates the role of citizens to discussion only indirectly related to decisionmaking and action. The reality of deliberation is that it is toothless.” (page 37)

I couldn’t agree more.  Discussing and debating ideas is important, but not nearly adequate.  The vast majority of people feel disheartened at the prospect of participating in government because they don’t feel heard. Their voices aren’t effecting policy and they feel like their efforts are futile and in vain.  To Noveck’s critique I would also add that there doesn’t seem to be much deliberative democracy currently happening. At least not in town hall events and city counsel meetings.  (Though I do see discussion and engagement on political blogs and Twitter.)
Deliberative Democracy vs Collaborative Democracy
By way of defining collaborative democracy, Noveck contrasts it with deliberative democracy.  Noveck takes about two pages to distinguish collaborative from deliberative democracy.  For easier digestion, I’ve listed her main points (in her own words) below:
  • Deliberative democracy suffers from a lack of imagination in that it fails to acknowledge the importance of connecting diverse skills, as well as diverse viewpoints, to public policy. Whereas diverse viewpoints might make for a more lively conversation, diverse skills are essential to collaboration.
  • Deliberation requires an agenda for orderly discussion. Collaboration requires breaking down a problem into component parts that can be parceled out and assigned to members.
  • Deliberation either debates problems on an abstract level before the implementation of the solution or discusses the solution after it has already been decided upon. Collaboration occurs throughout the decisionmaking process. It creates a multiplicty of opportunities and outlets for engagment to strengthen a culture of participation and the quality of decisionmaking in government itself.
  • Deliberation is focused on opinion formation and the general will (or sometimes on achieving consensus). Collaboration is a means to an end. Hence the emphasis is not on participation for its own sake but on inviting experts, loosely defined as those with expertise about a problem, to engage in information gathering, information evaluation and measurement, and the development of specific solutions for implementation. (page 39)

Possibilities of Collaborative Democracy

Ok, this is the stuff I love to read, think and dream about: the possibilities of collaborative democracy.  Noveck on connecting “experts” with problems:
[O]bscure (yet important decisions are made every day in government that could be made better if technology were used to open participation and oversight to a few dozen experts and enthusiasts: those that blogger Andy Oram calls the microelite: the 5 or 10 or 100 people who understand a discrete question and who are passionate about getting involved in a particular way. Collaborative democracy is about making it easier for such people to find the areas where they want to work and contribute.  (page 41)
On enabling collective action, possibly my favorite theme in the tech-enabled social change arena:
Giving ordinary people – as distinct from corporations and interest groups – the right and ability to participate enables them to form new groups better suited to address new problems.  Alone, there is not much any one person can do to bring about change or to participate meaningfully and usefully in a policymaking process. But working together a group can take meaningful action.  (page 42)
On agility:
Online groups can also change their collective goals in response to pressing problems more quickly than traditional organizations that lock in their own institutional and individual priorities. (page 42)

This quote reminded me of Tim O’Reilly’s brilliant concept, Government as Platform:

A collaborative culture does not place the burden on government or the public alone to address complex social problems. Instead, by organizing collaboration, government keeps itself at the center of decisionmaking as the neutral arbiter in the public interest and also benefits from the contributions of those outside of government.  (page 42)

The reward of collaborative democracy? Better governance, more effective problem solving, and innovation:

[C]ollaboration offers a huge potential payoff in the form of more effective government. Effective government, in turn translates into better decisionmaking and more active problem solving, which could spur growth in society and the economy. (page 43)
Tech-enabled, mass scale collaboration has the potential for us to re-imagine and re-create democracy as we currently experience it.  But as Noveck iterates throughout the book, effective collaboration takes smart and thoughtful design.  I’ll be exploring issues of design on this blog and Twitter in the days to come.

Posted via email from Corazon y Mente



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7 responses to “Noveck on Collaborative Democracy

  1. Contemporary deliberative theorists and practitioners have moved well beyond the patrician views of Habermas, so that’s a poor starting point for critique. In fact, most of the features that Noveck describes in her “collaborative” vision are precisely what deliberationists strive for now. (I think Noveck has advanced from many of the ideas in her book too.) Deliberation should always be more than just abstract, uninfluential dialogue. Some public engagement “events” call themselves deliberative, but are merely politically-orchestrated consultations. Instead, citizens (perhaps randomly selected, as mini-publics) should be invited to work directly and publicly with experts, public servants and stakeholders to recommend action that communities can live with (note that I did not say “consensus”). We need improved process design and facilitation to enable this to happen. It’s happening more (eg. Tuscan Law 69/2007; Citizens’ Assembly in BC; community summits and citizens juries all over the world). And new ways to bring people together constructively online can help greatly.

  2. Hi there – I’m a complete neophyte when it comes to collaborative democracy, so please bear that in mind if this question seems uninformed.

    How would a collaborative democracy, charged with the task of listening and acting on ideas generated by the people, move forward with unpopular decisions that ultimately prove to be useful further down the line? I’m thinking tyranny of the majority here.

    Women’s right to vote is the most obvious, but other issues that have been unpopular among governments worldwide have been making slavery illegal, legalizing homosexuality, introduction of income taxes.

    Would collaborative democracy be able to implement policies that are unpopular but that are necessary?

    • Emily Cunningham

      Travis, I’ve thought about the issue of “tyranny of the majority” as well and I don’t have a good answer. By and large, though, I think democracy is better safeguarded in an open, decentralized system. One in which “the people” are given agency and power rather than the wealthy elites and lobbyist that serve corporate interests rather than the public good. “The people” are a fragmented bunch. If you design a system where people can collaborate, sometimes you’ll get people organizing for horrible outcomes, but other times people will come together to make things right. Today, our society is largely organized around the interests of greed and power, and for the few rather than the many.

      I think you bring up an excellent point, Travis. And I’m thinking the answer lies in the design of the system, though I don’t know what it looks like exactly. What are your thoughts?

      • Emily, I live in Quebec. My family immigrated to Canada in the late 1800s on a land grant from England. We’re English-speaking and have no place to call “home” than this province. If the majority had its way in Quebec, however, I suspect that the mere fact of being a native English-speaking Quebecker would have been outlawed quite some time ago and my heritage as an English Quebecker erased.

        This province, and its voting populace, goes through wild swings in public opinion. Sometimes it’s passionately xenophobic, sometimes it’s apathetically xenophobic. As the source of all of Canada’s most important Federal politicians, political debate here is lively, passionate and quick. In 1995 the majority of the voting population wanted to break Quebec away from Canada – it was only a herculean effort on the part of the minorities (English-speaking Quebeckers like me or others) and the Federal Prime Minister that we managed to defeat the vote. Prime Ministers aren’t even elected in Canada!

        Today the demographics of Quebec are largely unchanged, yet separation from Canada is unpopular. How would things have turned out if we had a population that participated actively in government, and the former separatist majority here had “gotten the vote out” to the same extent as pro-Canadians? Who knows, maybe it would have been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If separation, popular at the time, had succeeded, the participating majority would have entered into an economically-unstable quasi-state founded on xenophobia and resentment.

        Having lived through that experience, and seen how people react when their deeply-held beliefs are challenged (even if those beliefs are contrary to human rights), I question whether people are fit to govern themselves collectively. Can visionary leaders really convince enough people of the weight and power of their ideas without having shown them to their people first-hand?

        The answer could very well lie in the design of the system, for example giving a quarter of the votes on a law to the people, and three quarters to their elected officials. Another alternative would be to limit the subject matter of public participation to items that do not impinge on economics or on human rights since those are, in my experience, two areas that are best-served by well-informed, corageous leadership. I often wonder, however, whether the answer is that western civilisations are better off with greed-motivated, leadership-based government that at least has the potential for vision, instead of a majority rules government where vision and leadership are snuffed out by common sense. It is a cynical attitude toward humanity and I hope that collaborative democracy is something that people would be able to do.

        The tyranny of the majority is a real problem, though, which to date has been solved only by the tyranny of the minority.

    • Emily Cunningham

      I’ve had a couple more thoughts….

      I think people are *eager* to follow effective leaders who act with integrity and courage. And lord knows this world is in need of good leadership! With the advent of the social web, and online reputations/rankings of individuals, others may be able to more easily sniff out those who are the real deal vs paid industry attackers (see Jones article below).

      Key to a collaborative democracy is what’s key to building social movements now: relationships. It will be interesting how the social web — and the blur of online and offline relationships — effects relationship building. I’m hoping it will enhance our relationships! But that’s to be seen.

      As I tweeted earlier,
      this piece by Pamela Jones of @groklaw is one of the best things I’ve read recently . She articulately discusses building online communities that work, with open source as a model.

      Also of note: yesterday, I came across Paul Adams (@padday), who is on Google’s UX team and a User Researcher Lead there. He has a book due out in August that I want to check out:

      Social Circles: How offline relationships influence online behavior and what it means for design and marketing

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