Personal Democracy Forum ramp-up: from vulnerability and overload to rage, mistrust, and fear


Personal Democracy Forum

will hold its sixth

annual conference

at the end of this month.
The theme, “how technology and the Internet are changing politics,
democracy, and society,” has been central to O’Reilly’s work over the
past few years (and a theme on which we’re holding a

summit of our own

in September).
Over the next two weeks I’ll write three blogs on the Radar site to
get some of my current thoughts off of my chest, clearing some space
so that when I get to the PDF conference itself, my blogs can focus on
its events and statements made by its participants.

This blog covers:

The government participation cycle: if you want to dance, sir

The grand vision for government/public collaboration is a set of
feedback loops that intensify the influence of the collective will on
government policy. A feedback loop might consist of a cycle like this:

  1. An agency (or less likely, a legislature) posts data in a downloadable
    format through a flexible API and announces a call for applications.

  2. Companies and public interest groups define goals and put programmers
    on the task.

  3. The public uses the resulting applications to generate data and share
    it with the agency.

  4. The agency sets policy or changes direction in response to the data.

At any step, a failure by any of the responsible actors to follow
through will leave the process hanging and discourage future projects
in open participation.

This doesn’t mean every project needs to include all four steps. The
public may benefit from government data without offering feedback, and
programmers could put their work under an open source license or into
the public domain for the benefit of the government or members of the
public without asking them to share more data. Agencies can also use
programs to improve internal coordination instead of working with the
public. But the full four steps serve as a canonical model for
government/public collaboration.

Successful examples already exist for each step. As I write this, has 261 data sets and 30 tools; thousands more data sets are
promised soon.
Appeals for donations of code, such as Vivek Kundra’s

Apps for Democracy

in Washington, DC and the Sunlight Foundation’s

Apps for America
show that coders will play their part, at least in the current
atmosphere of enthusiasm for the new initiative. And the public has
responded to requests for data.

But at the federal level, we need to dance a few rounds of the full
cycle before feeling confident that open processes are fully
entrenched. I’ll return to this theme in the
last section of this article.
The cycles of public participation will teach lessons, of course, that
feed into a still larger cycle of constant experimentation and

As public participation moves forward, it’s worth remembering that
resistance to the free flow of incoming and outgoing information is
not irrational. The resistance spring from healthy coping mechanisms
learned by individuals and organizations learned over their lifetimes.
I have already published and solicited comments on a
list of fundamental

questions on government participation
in this article I describe two such issues that play a special role in
resistance to information sharing.

Vulnerability: a reason to put brakes on outgoing information

A couple months ago, I read a stirring report from a federal agency
manager trying to sound out the Administration concerning how much the
agency ought to reveal. The manager was stunned and inspired by the
response of Bev Godwin, a prominent director at the White House and
General Services Administration, who advised talking about the bad
things as well as the good and soliciting negative as well as positive

Vulnerability is the keystone of transparency and openness. Online
forums, if they are run democratically and competently, encourage
vulnerability through a combination of self-correcting mechanisms:

The right to respond

Anyone criticized in a forum has repeated chances to defend himself at
length. If the forum includes a rating system, persuasive arguments
and well-chosen facts will float above false accusations as well as
flaccid excuses from the accused.

Support networks

Proponents of each side pile on to each debate, turning it into a
community issue and diluting the personal biases brought by the people
who began the debate. A bit of a mob scene can erupt at times,
awakening the risk that the losing side will walk away in a huff while
sensitive community members flee the fury. But as long as participants
value the community over partisan agendas and prefer honesty to
grandstanding, the community comes out stronger, more aware of its
options, and ready to integrate what it has learned into further

Community memory

Forum members recognize when old debates are re-ignited, and can fill
new members in on the history. They can also predict the way prominent
participants will line up on an issue. Debates are thus tighter and
more quickly resolved.

A propensity for truth

These traits all end up privileging accuracy and making it harder
(although not impossible) for bad judgment to prevail through false
claims, manipulative demagogy, appeals to group solidarity, and the
other tricks used by insincere factionalists.

This list may present online forums in a bit too rosy a light. But
they do permit social norms that protect vulnerable people,
even if the norms don’t function perfectly. The real problem comes
when words leave these forums and end up in other environments not
subject to the same rules.

Government staff have already witnessed too many negative experiences
in traditional, non-virtual settings. They have seen what happens when
a comment is taken out of context and bandied about in the broadcast
or print media, introduced into court testimony, or used as ammunition
in partisan debates. They know that comment posted on the Web can be
fodder for the same opinion machine–and are in fact even more
dangerous because the Web makes them more visible.

That’s not fair. It’s very hard for anyone outside an agency to judge
why it came down on one side of a debate or what that decision’s
long-term effects will be. Most agency actions are a complex
fermentation blending the data that was gathered, assessments of the
data’s accuracy, assessments of the possible trends indicated by the
data, consultations with the public (yes, outsiders are routinely
consulted), judgments about Congress’s intent, judgments about the
interests of the Administration, and more. But groups with a cause
like to ascribe one-dimensional reasons for key agency decisions and
mine public statements for corroborating evidence.

This doesn’t mean that all agencies are honest and act in the public
interest. Plenty of bad government decisions have been made under
pressure from well-organized special interests or to pay off political
donors. One role of civil society is to expose these
influences–that’s what open government and the Personal Democracy
Forum are all about. So we want more of these online forums. But we
also need to protect the agencies whom we expect to use the forums.
To encourage the necessary vulnerability, we have to combat those who
abuse the results.

Journalism is starting to incorporate its own feedback loops and open
its pages. Elections and policy debates are also monitored by the
blogosphere. So some forums are becoming friendlier to the cause of
vulnerability (the court system is unlikely ever to change). But it
will be a long time before it’s safe to lay out one’s thoughts in an
open, self-policing community.

Overload: a reason to put brakes on incoming information

The previous section mentioned the possibility of a “mob scene,” and
if people putting out information must be able to tolerate being
vulnerable, those requesting input from the public have to deal with a
potentially low signal-to-noise ratio.

We need not look far for an example. Take last month’s

brainstorming session

on open government, launched by the White House and the Office of
Science and Technology. It drew over 1,000 submissions in a single
week. (Even more are on the site now, but they arrived after the
official close of the session.)

The thousand submissions offered quite a smorgasbord for a group led
by the new Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, Beth
Noveck, to spoon through. They ended up with

many intriguing ideas
But the gathering of ideas was simply a suggestion box, not real
crowdsourcing. The web site offered no tools for editing, combining,
and culling entries (and there would be inadequate time to use such
tools anyway). The only aspect reminiscent of group behavior was a
casual and anonymous rating system, which played little role in the

And that’s a relief. After all, how many Americans would be able to
assess the Office of Open Government created by Florida Governor
Charlie Crist, or the potential for Cooperative Research and
Development Agreements to help convert government data and
applications to open source?
Both of these projects earned a place in the results, even though the
Florida model got only 24 votes and the Cooperative Research and
Development Agreements only 46. (Although they might have conceivably
been mentioned in an earlier brainstorming session conducted among
government workers, I couldn’t find them in the

publicly posted comments

In response to a question about the voting, Noveck wrote me, “We
wanted to encourage the National Academy of Public Administration to
try different voting techniques. They started out by allowing voting
by unregistered users, and later restricted it to registered users.
Given the change, we didn’t want to disadvantage anyone who
participated. Consequently, we viewed the voting as informative but
not determinative. On our weblog, only registered users can vote on

As her statement indicates, the second phase of this transparency
project has already sprouted more of the checks and balances found in
mature discussion forums. We can expect the Administration to wend its
way toward systems that gather useful opinions from self-organized
groups of qualified commentators, the model pioneered by Noveck in her
Peer to Patent project.

But will the White House have the time and resources to establish a
foothold for a solid and lasting open government program? That depends
on public tolerance for the Administration as a whole.

Rage, mistrust, and fear: inhibitors of the government participation cycle

Everyone knows that productive collaboration can’t take place under
conditions of rage, mistrust, or fear. Americans unfortunately are
suffering from all these feelings right now.

Their rage has been directed at the heads of the financial industry.
No peasant at the time of the French Revolution felt more hatred for
Marie Antoinette than some of the comments I’ve seen about AIG. In
addition, the current conditions of recession and financial
uncertainty breed mistrust toward all three branches of government,
and fear toward anyone who could seem to wangle an extra advantage
over other Americans.

I’m not going to factor in the recent murders of law enforcement
officers, Dr. George Tiller, and others because I’m sure the hate
crimes were caused by lots of diverse factors, and it’s unclear
whether they represent a widespread cultural movement. We have plenty
to worry about just by considering problems that will undeniably have
a broad impact on Americans.

Over the coming year, lots of homes will continue to be foreclosed
(because Congress failed to put a system in place to stop them), a
blight that hits many neighborhoods like a dry Katrina. This ongoing
crisis will be joined by credit card crisis (because Congress’s bill
didn’t do much to stop that either) and perhaps already a student debt crisis. The Administration has its own
challenges, waging two untraditional wars that nobody knows how to win
and tinkering with a global financial system that always cracks its

Open government doesn’t deserve to be at the mercy of current
political controversies. It did not originate with the Obama
administration, and it doesn’t require a Democratic Party philosophy.
The George W. Bush administration took some steps toward open
government (often forgotten amongst all the complaints over their
unsavory maneuvers and information withholding). The Bill Clinton
administration took steps too. But Obama is making it a centerpiece.

This gives us more hope than ever for openness, but ties its fortunes
to the larger sphere of activities by the Administration and federal

To establish a foothold, openness needs some early, impressive success
stories. Federal CTO Vivek Kundra has said his initiatives will prove
themselves by saving money, although that certainly isn’t his sole
aspiration. If the Administration can land a few universally
recognized successes–budgetary or otherwise–and especially if it can
run through the whole cycle I laid out at the beginning of this
article, such efforts will be continued by future Administrations.

Next article (Friday, June 19): twenty-five hundred years of Government 2.0.

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  • “But the gathering of ideas was simply a suggestion box, not real crowdsourcing. The web site offered no tools for editing, combining, and culling entries (and there would be inadequate time to use such tools anyway). The only aspect reminiscent of group behavior was a casual and anonymous rating system, which played little role in the results. “

    Isn’t that just a technical issue regarding information management? There could have been simple means to put ideas into common subject threads.

    There are time tested ways to manage information overload by reducing the combinatorial complexity of data points, we just need to ensure that we use them more, rather than ignoring them.

  • There is something subtle about Andy’s “feedback loop” that I quite like and that goes to the issue Alex is talking about above:

    Andy has it that (a) government emits data; (b) private third parties build apps; (c) citizens use those apps to generate feedback to agencies (who, (d) then act).

    A nice part of that schematic is that it keeps government out of the business of running on-line forums while, at the same time, encouraging competition among on-line forums.

    For example, where Andy’s loop is applied, the government never has to be in the business of censoring comments for appropriateness or running informal votes or any other such thing that easily runs into Constitutional problems. In principle, third parties can compete to find the best ways to collect, organize, and present citizen feedback to agencies in a formal, orderly way.

    In practice, the kind of “ball dropping” that worries Andy seems to be going on in two ways: first, with the Whitehouse doing its “comment and rank” experiments and second with the Whitehouse and Congress both signing “special deals” with YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. thus discouraging competition and activity of step (2) of his feedback loop (third parties building apps). Both mistakes raise Constitutional questions on the one hand and also fail to really follow through on the feedback loop on the other hand.


  • Alex: you are right, the brainstorming site just had extremely limited capabilities. I’m not sure why, but I think they were in a hurry and they didn’t want to do anything too fancy with OSTP’s first foray into this particular public comment system. As my blog indicates, I believe they’ll add more capabilities quickly in the future.

    Thomas: thanks for the further commentary on the four-step cycle. I don’t believe I was offering anything new. I think it’s happening right now. And of course, there can be multiple variations.