Technology can tap into citizen expertise and make government more open, says Beth Noveck

29 November 2016

Professor Beth Noveck, Director of The Governance Lab, told the fourth Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture that “technologies of expertise will create more open government” and increase engagement among the public.

In a wide ranging speech before a sell out audience, the former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative (2009-2011) addressed the “failings of closed door governance” that have led to recent “populist backlashes” in the UK and US, and outlined how new technologies could create “open systems of governing that are both more legitimate and more effective.”

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Noveck’s lecture on November 22, entitled ‘Enough of Experts? Data, democracy and the future of expertise’, was held just two weeks after the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections. The climate of increasing discontent with perceived out-of-touch experts that led to the surprise result resonated with many of the motivations behind the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in June.

In her lecture, Noveck traced the longstanding tension between expertise and democracy, tracing its historical evolution and the factors that have contributed to the current “ideological upsurge.” She highlighted the lack of public bureaucratic and parliamentary processes capable of tapping into the “collective intelligence of our communities and draw power from participation of the many rather than that of the few.” The absence of open institutions that take into account the citizen expertise of many disaffected voters creates a “vacuum that charismatic demagogues end up filling.”

“Any movement toward evidence-based, data-driven and informed policymaking that had been underway in the Obama Administration is likely to be systematically rolled back – or at the very least ignored – under President Trump,” Noveck said. This, coupled with the Brexit vote, reflects the “common thread of anti-elitist, anti-establishment” distrust of expertise sweeping across the United States and Europe.

But the “populist backlash against traditional political elites is not new,” she said. “It has been long in the coming with the rise of a professional, ‘expertocratic’ political class.” Noveck explained how local participatory practices evolved into a professionalised civil service to reign in the material excesses of industrialisation, while at the same time excluding the public from meaningful participation in governance as it was believed that “individuals cannot be omni-competent. Hence the need for experts.”

“For too long we have had institutions designed around the conviction that citizens must be spectators in the democratic process,” Noveck said. “This dichotomy between equality and expertise, between democracy and professionalism, is false”, she contended.

Rather, “expertise is widely distributed in society.” The challenge is now to link this distributed expertise to governing and match demand for knowhow to its supply, she said.

The solution, according to Noveck, is open innovation, or crowdsourcing, infusing credentialed expertise with that of the experiential insight and understanding of service users outside government. In soliciting help from members of the public, such online tools facilitate a process of participatory problem solving through knowledge and skills sharing. This in turn enhances the legitimacy and effectiveness of governing, while involving more people in the political process.

“As governments continue to seek solutions to big and complex problems, the concept of open innovation has widened the pool of potential problem solvers beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and created a new way of working that brings together the talent, abilities and expertise of government and governed,” Noveck said.

“Technologies of expertise” allow for the curating and matching of experts to specific problems. This ensures opportunities are more widely distributed and made visible to those civil servants, citizens and global experts most likely to participate, while enabling citizen engagement to become a “sustainable component of how government works at scale.”

She cited examples from Mexico, such as Mapaton CDMX, using citizen engagement to map Mexico City’s system of 29,000 micrbuses, and in the US, which hosts requests by government agencies to the public to tackle hard problems in exchange for cash prizes and other incentives.

“In an era of online dating the idea of matching might sound obvious,” Noveck said. “But in public life, it represents a radical departure from entrenched but anemic conception of citizenship as something associated only with the act of voting.

“The technologies of expertise can enable us to work neighbour-to-neighbour to tap into one another’s skills for public benefit so that patients with a common disease can help another or people with a demand can get matched to those with a supply of relevant skill or passion.”

Noveck challenged a series of long-held assumptions that prevented taking full advantage of these technological innovations and constructing more participatory governing practices.

The goal of engagement should not be seen as “purely about legitimacy building,” she argued. Rather, its value is in finding missing information, generating alternate hypotheses, and allowing for greater scrutiny of a problem. At the same time, participation must not be seen as solely mass-based. Instead, it serves to construct a multiplicity of different practices that speak to people’s knowledge and experiences to spot problems, design policies, and tap citizen, civil servant and global participation.

Engagement should also no longer be perceived as limited to the “multi-stakeholderism” of interest group representation, but look to broader networks of people with innovative ideas to contribute. Accelerating research on governance innovations will enhance understanding of how to use technologies of expertise to match people to participatory opportunities, while illuminating the influence of these kinds of exercises in the perception of government and their ability to incorporate the interest of various communities.

In calling for a “divorce” of knowhow from “elite social institutions,” Noveck outlined how “technology is democratising expertise” by creating tools to enable neutral identification of talent and ability — regardless of whether they come from inside or outside government.

“Governments are faced with a challenge: deliver services, make policies and solve problems in ways that are more effective and transparent. Innovations such as open and big data, citizen science, and prize-backed public challenges to engage citizens are being presented as the first steps in helping governments become more open, more participatory, and more accountable.

“When we make expertise of all kinds systematically findable, participation has the potential to become robust and commonplace, citizenship has the potential to become more active and meaningful, and institutions have the potential to become both more effective and more legitimate,” she said.

There is a need, therefore, to train today’s public servants to use new tools to unlock talent and systematically connect motivated innovations both inside and outside government to solve problems.

“It is incumbent upon those who govern to get at that knowhow, not occasionally, but continuously,” Noveck said. “There is no more important public issue today than how to develop our governing organizations to make them smarter and better able to tackle the myriad and complex challenges we face.”

While closed-door, centralised, hierarchical bureaucracy is out of date, in a time of technological change and rapidly shifting political attitudes, “The open and networked governance institutions of the future will work more effectively and more legitimately. They have to.”

The event was introduced by Professor James Wilsdon, Chair of the Campaign, who said: “2016 marks our fifth birthday, and while we are still young, over the past year we have expanded our scope and reach. We are looking forward to the year ahead, working on projects such as the Health of People, setting out the social science contribution to public health, increasing our activities around the country, and responding to the challenges the Brexit poses to social science and the entire research system.”

SAGE’s Global Publishing Director, Ziyad Marar, spoke to the importance of the work undertake by the Campaign in making the case for the social sciences. He said the changing landscape brought on by both political developments and the rise of new technology and big data is “full of potential opportunities and complexity in developing the tools and techniques that will be needed to do social science well.”

This was the fourth lecture in the annual series. Last year’s was delivered by Sharon Witherspoon, former Nuffield Foundation Director and current Head of Policy at the Campaign and its parent organisation, the Academy of Social Sciences. Former LSE Director Craig Calhoun delivered the 2014 lecture, while the inaugural lecture in 2013 was given by David Willetts, the then Universities and Science Minister.

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