Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


April 2009

inca09 as policy to create social innovation

I am helping IBBT in organising the Flemish version of appsfordemocracy, called INCA awards.
It is interesting as the continental Europe context is not as mature as the US and UK with regard to web-based social innovations. So the award is a way to raise awareness both towards developers and towards policy-makers about the potential of doing stuff that matters.
At the same time it is risky, as we’re less sure of how many proposals we’re going to receive.

But this is the whole point which makes it interesting. We’re not trying to make the best competition worldwide. We’re trying to make things better here where we are. Web2.0 social innovation is very much an Anglosaxon tradition. We see UK and US leading the way. There is nothing in continental Europe comparable to MySociety and SunlightFoundation.
So either we simply accept that, or as public agencies we try to:
– promote and support the people who are thinking in this way already
– raise awareness and promote this culture towards developers who think still mainly in commercial terms, and towards policy-makers who still think the only way forward is through large government-led projects
The INCA award is one of the first policies to promote web2.0 social innovation in places without a  self-sustained flourishing landscape of bottom-up initiatives. It acts on culture. It is a meso-level policy, like Kublai and the Social Innovation Camp.

That is why I animated the “inspiration” section of the website with examples. Inspiration is a great way to raise awareness and accelerate change. And this is the mission of INCA09, just as the mission of the public services 2.0 workshop organised with Lee, Dominic and Justin:
Accelerating change. Bridging gaps.

extending the peertopatent model to other fields of government

I often use PeerToPatent as examples of crowdsourcing in government, a project which makes public decision-making at the same time more transparent, more fast and more intelligent.
PeerToPatent applies crowdsourcing to patent review. Anyone can examine the patent application, submit relevant prior art and rank the prior art submitted by others.
The rationale is that the patent system is broken: too many requests, too technical and specific knowledge required make the review process almost useless as 95% of applications are approved, and then really assessed only in judiciary litigations. Companies are in favour of the peertopatent approach, although it means that they have to make public their patent applications at an early stage. But it is a price which can be asked as part of the patenting process.

Here comes the analogy. There are 2 other government areas which are broken in a similar way, and could benefit from a dramatic opening up of the process:
– the procurement process is broken. Government is not skilled enough to properly evaluate complex products it procures. Dialogue with providers is strictly regulated. Proposals are secret. Assessment is conducted behind the scenes. The result is that choices are made first of all in order to avoid litigations, by following the procedure 200%. Awards go to the proposals which are better written with respect to norms and procedures, not to the best products.
– the research funding process is broken. Governments are not skilled enough to evaluate scientific proposals. They rely on so-called experts which are identified with closed procedures. Proposals are secret and assessment is conducted behind the scenes. The result is that the award go to the proposal that are better written, rather than to the most advanced and important research projects.

I propose to open up these two processes by piloting the peertopatent approach on a limited set of pilot projects.
Bids for procurement and research proposals should be published publicly and commentable by anyone, even competitors. Arguments for evaluating the proposals could be voted by all participants, and the most voted arguments should go to the government agency in charge of the decision.

Then of course, the decision should be taken by government. Yes, the proposals are often confidential, but one could well think to apply the principle: if you want public money, then you should put your proposals in public.

I think this is necessary and important. Most of all, the system is broken and needs radical innovation. Opening up the process could dramatically increase the quality of procurement and of research. At least in the same way that it is working for PeerToPatent, which is not yet mainstream but a very interesting and successful pilot. I would start from the research funding as it is less rigidly regulated and more similar to the patent review process.

Any government interested to experiment on this?


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