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Beth Noveck is director of the US think tank Governance, and she has worked with technology and innovation in the White House under Barack Obama. In her latest book Smart Citizens, Smarter State she explains how a greater fusion of technology and politics can help us on the way towards better governance and more public participation in the political process.
When Beth Simone Noveck arrived to the white house in January 2009 to head up President Obama’s Open Government initiative—an effort set up to apply technology and innovation to try to improve the workings of government—she was full of unfazed enthusiasm.
Noveck served as a volunteer advisor in the Obama election campaign in 2007 and 2008, seeing first hand how social media could help ordinary citizens engage in politics on a national level. And so she believed those same credentials could then be applied when she got a job within government itself.
Pretty quickly, however, Noveck began to see small cracks appear in the system, especially the conservative culture she witnessed inside the corridors of Washington, where any attempt to fuse the traditional rules of government with technological innovation was treated with suspicion.
At the time, the white house did not have a blog, let alone a Facebook or Twitter account. And the official website the Obama administration inherited from the Bush administration was barely functioning. “We were running windows 2000, when it was 2009! And we still couldn’t use social media [in the white house]”, Noveck explains when we begin chatting. “There was also a massive amount of legal and cultural hurdles that made it incredibly hard to be constructive with technology”, she adds.
Still, in spite of the disappointing start, Noveck believes there were some positive outcomes in her role leading President Obama’s Open Government initiative, where she worked until 2011. “Open data has been one of the great successes of the Open Government initiative. When we began this job, we started with 47 data sets”, she explains.
These data sets included information about government spending and budgets, as well as opening up the data the government was holding on information about the economy, the environment and the marketplace. Previously, much of this data was closed to public access. “Even starting with that was important, just to develop cultural acceptance about data”, says Noveck. What has since evolved from this cultural shift, Noveck maintains, is that the US government, among governments of over forty countries around the world, are now attempting to implement change in public policy— using data— in areas like policing, prisons, and crime reduction. “There is now a conscious realisation that data is going to matter in terms of how government works”, says Noveck.
“That’s just one example of government saying: we should actually use the data we have collected to do things differently. But where we haven’t seen a similar level of uptake— and hence why i wrote this book— is actually transforming the openness of government where we use human expertise, and get citizens to engage to their full potential”.
The book Noveck speaks of is called Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing. Beginning with the premise that an explosion of data over the last decade has revolutionized the world in ways that were previously unimaginable, Noveck argues that by using technology specifically to their advantage, citizens around the globe can now participate in the democratic process with far more authority and intellectual clout than they used to.
Twitter and Facebook may appear at first glance like a suitable medium that allow one to aim one’s complaints towards government in the public sphere. However, social media can never provide the infrastructure that’s needed for governing itself, Noveck insists. So how exactly can data and more information help change government institutions? Noveck begins to list off a plethora of examples from around the globe—most notably in developing economies — in an attempt to give her argument a little more substance.
In Tanzania, for instance, a country that has very low rates of internet penetration, and where the tech-based open government is still a very nascent idea, the government opened up the data it held about secondary school exam pass rates. Then, a person working outside of government designed a website displaying the actual results, in a manner that was reader-friendly and easy to use, Noveck explains.
And in Mexico, another example involving school data shows how one state alone found 1442 teachers on the state pay roll who were recorded as being aged between 100 and 105 years old, and one teacher was earning an astonishing USD 46,000 a month. In another school, there were six teachers on the payroll, and only one pupil in the school. “The point is that there are people outside of government who have the passion to get involved and do things better [when working alongside government, ed.]”, says Noveck.
Noveck is currently Director of The Governance Lab at New york University, and has previously been awarded an OII Internet and Society award, in recognition of her outstanding leadership in exploring and implementing new applications of technology that improve people’s lives by changing the way institutions govern.
The traditional road to democratic accountability used to mean casting a ballot every four years, while completely trusting government in the process of decision-making. But Noveck believes that technology has now bequeathed to citizens the opportunity to contribute to democracy on an ongoing basis: primarily by using skills and areas of expertise to enhance the transparency and openness of government.
On the surface, democratic participation on Twitter and Facebook may seem like a noble method of reflecting how citizens feel about the political culture. However, when it comes to the implementation of public policy, what government institutions actually need, Noveck believes, are manageable quantities of information: these help to make decisions more rapidly. “One of the reasons we don’t see any massive change in political institutions is that we haven’t yet been able to target people with the relevant kinds of expertise that could actually help to fix this problem”, Noveck explains. “This is what I call crowd sourcing wisely, instead of crowd sourcing widely. We need to make it possible for institutions to get better expertise more quickly and reliably than we are presently doing”.
It is important to remember here, says Noveck, that spotting experts who are capable of helping tackle certain problems is only half the problem. No matter how well targeted, a group of people can only produce a proper impact when they come together productively, she adds. Some readers may be turned off by Noveck’s jargon-filled academic approach in teasing out an argument at length. That said, for those with the patience to read on, there is much positivity to glean from the central thesis in Smart Citizens Smarter State.
Namely, the idea that technology is now breaking down the old class barriers, democratising information, and allowing innovative human beings to steer society to a place where those with the best skills, rather than the greatest amount of money, can help influence the decision making process in government.
Moreover, there is now an emerging class of socially conscious designers, architects and technologists, Noveck argues, who are undertaking rapid experimentation with the implementation of innovative ideas for dealing with intractable social challenges. “Whether it is making an app, curing a disease, or simply to do things for the public or civic good. Because really, we are missing out on opportunities to build institutions around our most valuable human asset, which is human capital”.
For far too long [in government institutions, ed.] we have been running things in very rigid bureaucracies”. Noveck cites the National Health Service in the United Kingdom as a typical example of a government institution that’s making a concerted effort to use data more effectively to improve outcomes for its citizens. In May 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Noveck as a senior advisor for Open Government. Given her experience in that role, she’s quick to weigh in with her opinions on how making use of data could actually be improved in certain state-run institutions. “Essentially, we need to redesign institutions that can manage what people know and can do. We really need to get away from the notion that the only reason we should negotiate with people outside of government is to ask their opinion”.
Noveck refers to this multi-skilled person — which she claims is the most valuable resource in our society— as the smart citizen. “A smart citizen does not rely merely on credentials”, she says. “A smart citizen proves that you don’t have to be from Harvard, MIT, or some other elite institution to succeed. Even in a so-called information economy, it’s not always about more information. It’s also about targeting the right skills, and information, at the right time”. Presumably, then, I suggest, this will lessen the rigid class barriers that presently exist in society? “I think so”, says Noveck, nodding her head in agreement.
“It will help overcome class barriers in the sense that getting a good job will no longer be about whether you attended Harvard or Oxford. Rather, it will be about a person’s skills and expertise. So it’s data driven, highly mentored, and skill based. IT employers such as Amazon, Google, and others are now flocking to hire these folks, even without a proper accreditation”. “So certain people, through technology, are now able to access better training and skills. Previously this would not have been possible”.
There is, of course, I suggest, a counterargument to be made: which says technology is actually making the world a more undemocratic and unequal place, with each passing year. In fact, if I had one criticism of Noveck’s book it would be that she doesn’t spend an awful lot of time dissecting this in her thesis. In fairness, she does, however, point out that in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, the United States’ leadership on open government was lambasted for what many perceived to be duplicity and hypocrisy. I mention to Noveck that I interviewed Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner, for SCENARIO, earlier this year: reading back a quote to her from the interview, which states that: “People need to remember that Snowden’s revelations about secret NSA activity is a story about the long term threat which mass surveillance – facilitated by new technologies – poses to all societies”.
Does Noveck agree with Wizner’s comments? “Well surely we don’t want spying behind closed doors, or a situation where government is over classifying information”, she responds. From this moment on, though, it appears that Noveck is consciously beginning to choose her words more carefully. Unconditional open government – which refers to the national security arena – is completely its own topic, Noveck stresses with enthusiasm.
“When I first began working [in the Obama administration], we called it open and innovative government. What I intended was that we would develop strategies for solving problems in new ways: for leveraging and distributing expertise and data, and for governing differently”. “But what I was a little naïve about, was that the phrase open government has for a long time referred to a very specific category of transparency. There is a difference between opening up national security, and making government more accountable and democratic. These really are very separate issues”.
The tech-enabled notion of more participatory government, Noveck maintains, is about solving problems more effectively. “The open government issue in its modern usage is really about the relationship between citizens and government, and about solving problems in new ways. It’s not rooted in the same argument that equates transparency of certain kinds of information to more accountable government”.
Above all, Noveck is hopeful that by utilising each citizen’s expertise and skills, governments around the globe can concurrently speed up the process by which they can implement public policy, and eventually move away from the notion of getting expertise by a standing committee of experts only. Improving the level of expertise in government requires more than tweeting a question or implementing a one-time open-call crowd sourcing project. Instead, Noveck is calling for citizens to use new tools to unlock talent and systematically connect motivated innovators both inside and outside of government.
“This really comes back to that Obama idea of working online, getting questions on a more granular basis about things that citizens might know”, says Noveck. “And it doesn’t matter what the topic is. Let’s take education policy as just one example. So instead of the idea of having an Education minister who serves for a three year term and then writes a report, you find the ability to push out day-to-day questions to people with expertise, skills and education. And you can apply those same credentials to any topic: health, policing, building public works, engineering, and even emergency evacuation procedures, which governments need to implement in times of natural disasters”.
If governments around the world can lead with this kind of attitude, Noveck firmly believes that technology will become the great democratic enabler: making it possible to go beyond the proxies of expertise, credentials, exclusive schools, or even professional membership. “I’m extraordinary hopeful that targeting expertise can bring in more active citizenship, by encouraging more people to participate in things they know and care about. This will lead to more effective institutions, and therefore more legitimate government, because, crucially, institutions will simply be better at what they do”. “In the end, people want government that works”. I must say though, by the end of our conversation, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Noveck’s thesis.
The idea of governments and individuals working together to create a more efficient state is indeed a noble concept. But perhaps all governments — starting with the United States in particular — need to start respecting, first and foremost, the privacy of their citizens: a concept that was once considered an innate and unquestionable right of any western democratic nation state.