Smart Citizens, Smarter State

I finished reading Beth Novek’s book called Smart Citizen, Smarter State. Novek focuses on citizen engagement and calls for more expert-centric software to help government identify and utilize expertise outside of government to help with government decisions.

This book was a great representation of the lack of good software within government. Her examples of policies like FACA show how hard it is to use citizen engagement. Sometimes, it’s even illegal. In terms of my own research, she backs up the idea that government has limited technology and technology experts to make the systems that better the government.

The one thing that I think she needs to explore more is how that engagement would pan out, especially on a scale that she is trying to create. This is my internal conundrum with citizen communication to policymakers. Right now, it’s “broken”, but in what way? If you ask a policymaker how to fix it, the answer is probably quite different from the citizen’s answer. That’s because they embody different democratic values of engagement and influence.

Novek also focuses on citizen involvement in the knowledge collection, and not the decision making process. This goes along the lines of Churchill’s “Experts on Tap, Not on Top“.

This reflects an internal conundrum  I am exploring Ofcourse, policymakers should listen to what their citizens have to say. They have the constitutional right to do so, and their knowledge can provide assistance to those in power. But just because policymakers listen to the comments and demands of their citizens, does not mean they have to act upon them . So should novel technologies develop systems that have a goal to influence legislation?…Maybe not. Maybe the answer is as Novek suggested; to develop systems that provide quality knowledge to policymakers, so their own decisions can be based on rational evidence. (That possibility leads down a whole different rabbit hole of issues on what is ‘rational’… )

As of October 10, 2017, citizens are getting angry, and they want their policymakers to listen to them. But do they really have to? They were elected to represent, not listen. And they can choose not to listen at the risk of not being re-elected.

So as a technologist looking in, what are you suppose to do? Build something better? Is technology just in the way? It’s a hard question that I can’t answer. This doesn’t mean technology doesn’t have the positive potential to be a platform for engagement, but what’s the point of an expert management system if no one wants to engage in or use that expertise? 

At the end of the day, I have two internal tensions. First, I think Novek puts too much faith on the current state of the American people to actively participate. Citizens only get involved when they feel their government is failing, or at least that is my current perception with the state of our government today. That is why we established a government in the first place; to let someone represent us so we don’t have to make all the decisions ourselves. But second, I think she has a great point that citizens have something very valuable to offer policymakers and we should provide better access to their valuable knowledge. The question of how that knowledge will actually be used is still up in the air.