June 8, 2009 By Tod Newcombe, Editor
Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful
Published by Brookings Institution Press, 2009
224 pages; $28.95
Review by Tod Newcombe
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is a government bureaucracy awash in paperwork and slowly strangling on limited resources. With a backlog of nearly 1 million patent applications awaiting review for approval, one of the very cornerstones of American democracy and capitalism has been in danger of collapsing.
Part of the problem was the lack of experts who could evaluate the flood of incoming applications. To help USPTO solve its problem, law professor Beth Simone Noveck turned to the rapidly emerging world of Internet-based social networking to transform the process and let anyone with Internet access collaborate with the agency in reviewing applications. The result was the Peer-to-Patent program, which, in 2007, put together a far-flung team of technologists, lawyers and policy-makers who opened a tradition-bound agency's doors using technology that distilled online collaboration into useful expertise that has sped up the review process.
Noveck has taken that experience as a launching pad for leading President Barack Obama's Open Government Directive. As the president's deputy chief technology officer for Open Government, Noveck has the formidable task of leading the drive for more transparency, participation and collaboration within the federal government. Her new book, Wiki Government, is Noveck's vision for turning that mandate into action.
The book's central theme is that we need to rethink democracy in the digital age. Using technology, Noveck says collaborative democracy can strengthen public decision-making by connecting the power of the many to the work of the few. "The private sector has learned that better decision making requires looking beyond institutionalized centers of expertise," said Noveck. Now it's time for government to do the same. "The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for those with expertise to engage."
Technology is the key that can allow smart people to share their knowledge and expertise with the government institutions that need it to solve today's complex problems. But as we all know, the Internet can be an amplifier, bringing on mass participation that can overwhelm the lofty goals of participatory democracy.
Noveck's solution is to design a governance process that sets up an egalitarian, self-selecting mechanism for gathering and evaluating information and transforming raw data into useful knowledge. Much of Wiki Government tells of how the Peer-to-Patent project worked, creating online networks of self-selecting citizen experts and channeling their knowledge and enthusiasm into forms that patent examiners can easily use.
The book details the design challenges the Peer-to-Patent team faced in creating software that could manage online participation and it explains how law, policy and technology can be revamped to help government work in more open and participatory ways in a wide range of policy areas, including education and environment.
Like so much else about the young administration in the White House, it's too early to tell whether Noveck's vision of a collaborative, wiki-based government is taking hold. New Web sites, such as Recovery.gov and Data.gov, offer some tantalizing glimpses at what may be coming, but little else.
But as Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google Inc., explained, Wiki Government translates the lessons of the Internet for public policy-makers, providing the know-how for political institutions to engage the public in solving complex problems and creating a better democracy.
You can't ask for a book to do more than that.
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