Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


September 2011

Save the date. Collaborative e-government in Europe: status and perspective workshop

We started in January 2011 a study for the European Commission on collaborative e-government. You can see the short leaflet (collaborative production in egov study introduction letter).

The key questions that the study addresses are:

–       What is collaborative e-government and to what policy areas is it applied?

–       How are Europe and its Member states positioned?

–       Does it have a substantial positive impact on the quality of services, while maintaining for universality and accountability?

–       What are the drivers and the barriers?

–       What policy actions should Europe promote, and with which targets?

We’ve done, interviews, web-surveys, case studies. Now we present the results, at a free workshop on October 27th (register here). It will not be only us, speaking: there will be great testimonials and the video-intervention from the US government. Finally, we will have a brief brainstorming on policy measures. Look forward to seeing you!

Intervention Speaker Time
Introduction Juan Arregui, European Commission 14
Overview of study results David Osimo, Tech4i2 14.10
Discussion 14.30
Open round table with cases of collaborative e-government(10 minutes per speaker followed by debate) Chris Taggart, Founder of

Kai Ekholm, Director of National Library of Finland

Alberto Cottica, Council of Europe, author of “Wikicrazia” and founder of

Interventions on additional cases (Ton Zijstra NL, Marcello Verona IT…)

Policy case: , the crowdsourcing platform of the US government Karen Trebon, Deputy Director, US General Service Administration 16
Discussion 16.10
Collaborative work: building policy recommendations and targets Division in groups of 10 people to elaborate initial policy recommendations and target indicators 16.20
Reporting of WGs 16.50
Wrap up David Osimo 17

Indicators for successful online engagement

In the context of the collaborative Gdansk roadmap, I have been thinking about ways to measure the success or failure of such online engagement initiatives.

Any success has to be measured against the stated objectives. When I organize similar initiatives (and I start to have quite a few) I have a scale of objectives, from the most basic (tools that workk smoothly) to the most advanced (receiving good input from interesting people).

Scale of engagementSo I thought about a corresponding list of indicators.

  1. Avoid technical hiccups: number of complaints; degree of innovation (from mature to world first implementation)
  2. Ensure takeup: number of contributions, number of contributors
  3. No spam: number of spam comments
  4. Ensure high quality content: % of contributions judged as useful; % of new contributors (previously not engaged)

What do you think? Is this a good first list?

An inside look in the US crowdsourcing platform:

In the context of our study for the EC on collaborative e-government, I had the pleasure to interview Karen Trebon, deputy director of

This is a web platform run by the US government to host inducement prizes. Government agencies can post “challenges” that can be met by any citizens. Apps contests neatly fit in, but other challenges can be found, such as NASA competition for writing “algorithm to fly three small SPHERES satellites around the cabin of the International Space Station”. is one year old so it appears to be the perfect timing for looking back at its achievements. I therefore interviewed Karen Trebon, Deputy Director of

Among the key findings of this interview:

– technology costs are zero, the platform has been offered by a tech provider, two people are working on it (mainly on training and awareness)

– all federal agencies but 2 have used the platform to launch prizes

– so far 38 million dollars in prizes have been distributed, including a 18 million dollars prize for Solid State Lighting

You can see an introductory video about the initiative here.

For the first time, I publish the interview as a podcast. It has long been a goal of mine to do interview podcasts, heavily inspired by Jon Udell Interviews with Innovators. I hope you find it interesting, feedback on this is especially welcome.

Interview with

Enchanting technologies in government: embeddable online consultation

For some time I’ve been interested in the notion of enchanting technologies, those tools that inspire action and give a sense of magic because they so tightly meet expectations we didn’t know we had.

Yet I would not have expected such a feeling to come out of e-consultations…

Some weeks ago we’ve been asked to advise the EC on a collaborative roadmap creation. We came back with, because it allows documents to be collaboratively commented and nicely visualized. Commentable documents are better than traditional consultation, because it allows people to see what other people post immediately, without the filter or bottleneck of government which is typically the case in e-mail or survey-based consultation.

The hidden gem in co-ment is that it allows to embed the commentable document on any website. Thereby, with very little cost we were able to publish this online consultation 2.0 on the Europa website. But the disruptive innovation happens when you allow any other stakeholder to embed the document (as iframe). In this way, you not only ask stakeholders to provide input to the EU-level discussion: you ask them to co-host the consultation. Already several stakeholders, such as Telecentres, have published the document on their website.

The power of this technological solution is that it makes visible and concrete the kind of subsidiarity and silos-breaking effect that Europe longed to achieve. Government are often warned that they cannot expect people to come to their website, they should rather reach out where people already are. This is especially true for the EU, where the discussion is often limited to the “Brussels bubble”. Embedded consultation allow stakeholders to build local discussion that directly feed the EU level debate.

Of course this is just a start, and many questions remain unanswered: who is really answering, how to summarize hundreds of comments, the quality of comments, and the privacy and accountability implications of embeddable documents. Yet there is something magic and inspirational to comment on a document on your local website and the comment appears on the Europa website.

Is public spending better guaranteed by anonimity or reputation?

I’ve been critical, as many others, towards government funding of innovation because it rarely reaches the true innovators: too often it goes to “usual suspects” or “money grabbers”.

There are exceptions. Two very highly reputated programmes are the ERC and FET-OPEN. The European Research Council funds top researchers in Europe, selected through peer review. FET-OPEN is a bottom-up funding instrument for frontier research.

What I discovered today is interesting: they both manage to attract the best and the brightest, but their approach is opposite when it comes to anonimity. ERC funding is distributed purely on reputation criteria, in order to go to the best researchers. Hence reputation is everything and anonimity is out of place. FET-OPEN instead informs that “The anonymity policy applied to short proposals has changed and is strictly applied. The part B of a short STREP proposal may not include the name of any organisation involved in the consortium nor any other information which could identify an applicant. Furthermore, strictly no bibliographic references are permitted.”

This is an interesting contradiction, worth exploring. It relates to the ex-ante vs ex-post control models of government.



Is Gov 2.0 any different from downright privatisation?

The popularity of government 2.0 could be also seen as yet another way to downsize and privatize government. For example, according to some studies, government should simply publish data online, while citizens and companies will build great services on top of it.

I’ve long criticized this approach arguing that public vs private service delivery is not a zero-sum game. For example, the A-76 circular in the US posits that whenever government had a job to do, it should be done by whoever (private or public) could do it more cheaply. Is  gov2.0 the same?

I argue that one important difference is in the premises of the sentence: “whenever government had a job to do”. This assumes that governments have static and explicit demands. In fact, much of gov2.0 is innovation that government would not recognize either as a need nor as an opportunity. Much of the success of the first open data challenges was in coming up with solutions for problems that were not even thought about by government.

This is a positive sum game: private citizens do not substitute government, but rather augment it.


Is gov2.0 only for those already engaged? MySociety shows it’s not

One of the recurrent criticisms, also from my side, to government 2.0 is that it risks being self-referential. It is done by policy wonks for policy wonks. The typical users are those rich white men that are typically interested in politics.

This is not new, but a traditional criticism to e-democracy initiatives. However, government 2.0 because of its emphasis on social aspects, outreach and usability promised to bridge the gap between engaged and non-engaged.

Here comes some evidence: MySociety published two independent studies on the evaluation of two of their website. There is a wealth of very interesting data (although I would have preferred to have already the raw data from the user survey – please?).

The main findings are:

– the typical users of these website are those segments of population who are more politically active: men, highly educated and rich, above 55 years old are over-represented with respect to overall populaton distribution

– however, low income people and unemployed are well represented

– finally, 60% of the users have never contacted politicians before, so they’re new to the process.

In summary, at macro level MySociety users are biased towards the more engaged segments, but when looking at individual users they have often new to proactive engagement. MySociety appears successful to reach out to the non-engaged individuals within the highly-engaged category.

Could this be true for government 2.0 in general? As we’re doing a study on this, we will present our results at the forthcoming workshop on October 27th. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

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