Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


March 2013

Starting my own Q and A: how to integrate offline and online engagement?

I recently gave a speech at an event of the Euractiv foundation about the future of policy-making in Europe. Following the event, I was asked several questions. Rather than answering only to the person, I will answer the questions on this blog. This is a way for me to experiment with Q&A, a tool I very much like. This is an experiment in preparing for the Policy-making 2.0 conference which we hold in June in Dublin (more information to follow)

The first question is about how to integrate best online and offline engagement. This is something I addressed many times, when animating the  Digital Agenda Assembly and many other European events.

Online engagement and offline are not substitute, but complementary. Online tools can be used before, during and after an event to augment its relevance and impact..

Before an event, it serves the purpose of preparing the discussion and framing it in a way that is clear to all participants. Questions should be asked to and by participants, or the keynote speaker should present its key ideas. The discussion that follows helps putting people on the right wave-length for the event. An additional tool I used is crowdsourcing (voting) to identify the topics to be discussed and the people to invite. To make this meaningful, it is crucial to report the results of the online discussion at the beginning of the event.

During the event, we mostly use twitter to get feedback from people in the room and outside. This creates a back-channel that facilitates peer-to-peer connection between participants and releases possible tensions created by the limited time, since people can voice their opinion online. We usually report during the event on “what’s being tweeted”. The role of twitter is dramatically different if the event is being broadcasted or not: if yes, twitter is mainly a way to let people participate remotely in an active manner. The best practice in this sense for me remains the Public Services 2.0 workshop in 2009.

After the event,  online engagement helps turning the energy of the one-off event into a more sustainable collaboration. It is crucial to ensure online spaces for follow-up and link between participants, such as an online discussion forum or a mailing list. While this can be easily made on the fly through free online tools such as Google Groups, it is best organised and launched before the event (such as the DAA website).

What would MySociety do? Imagining the MP 2.0

I was lucky enough to be contacted by one of the new MPs of the Italian government, Paolo Coppola. He was one of the “administrators 2.0” from local government in Italy (but also a professor in Computer Science). He asked Marcello Verona and I about ideas to open up his parliamentary work (also based on our experience with

The hangout soon took the form of a brainstorming about what would an ideal “MP 2.0” look like. The best way to frame this for me is: if it was a MP, what would MySociety do?

This is particularly stimulating in view of our work on Policy-Making 2.0, which we will present and discuss at the forthcoming conference in Dublin, June 17/18. Stay tuned for more.

Some ideas emerged. First, it is great that MP starts to open up parliamentary work after winning the elections, not (as usual) as a short-term tool to gain a positive image in view of the elections. Open engagement is a long-term process, needs time to gain trust.

Secondly, there is no predefined set of tools, but rather a set of values that can be applied to any problem/ issue of the parliamentary activity. It’s about “thinking open” for each activity. One example: he receives 50 law proposals per day from fellow MPs, and there’s no way he could read them all. What about posting them online and letting people signal the most relevant and explain why (in plain Italian)?

It was particularly stimulating to hear his views on the problems of scalability and on the overall disappointment with the tools available. We all agreed that current technologies don’t scale well: engaging is still to time-consuming, you need a lot of human effort to sift through the contributions, and very little high-quality content emerge. The best ready-made solution is still letting people signal and filter the most relevant comments, as in Ideascale and Uservoice. More advanced solutions such as opinion mining, visualisation, network analysis, are far from maturity.

Myself, I am a fan of quora-like platforms, or symmetric Q&A, with a particular attention to reputation-based system to filter information (like Quora PeopleRank algorythm).

Overall, my recommendation is to move not in the direction of direct democracy and total transparency, but on gradually opening up each step to leverage open collective intelligence. A MP has to take decisions of his own, but has to be accountable and should take advantage of openness to attract micro-expertise which he does not have.

I am particularly against total transparency such as the web streaming of the negotiation between Grillo and Bersani. Politics needs private moments to negotiate: they need to be recognized as such. It’s not about secrecy, but the right to one-to-one discussion. If you want total transparency, you call for secrecy that you don’t know. I am in favour of transparent secrecy, the recognized space for one-to-one negotiation.

At the end, we left the meeting with a very provocative statement for the situation in Italy: we realize that WE LOVE POLITICS!

Look forward to continuing the conversation and hearing your views on this: what would MySociety do?

Different approaches on online consultation by EC: the role of many-to-many

Recently, I’ve seen some novelties in the EC approach to online consultation, moving beyond the official tool “Interactive Policy Making” (basically an online survey tool).

In particular, the most recent consultation on FET attracted my attention as one of the first to have an immediate many to many approach. After the first round of ideas were collected, summaries of the main topics are now published and anyone can add their research recommendations.

This is interesting insofar up to now most of the consultation happened in a “one-to-many” fashion, by asking stakeholders to submit contributions that were only visible to the EC, to be then analysed by the EC and published. See for instance this consultation on ICT driven public innovation.

On the other hand, the many-to-many approach is one of the basic values of web 2.0, helps creating transparency and peer-to-peer discussion and collaboration.

Nothing of this is new, but it’s interesting to see it’s happening, and would be good now to compare the different impact of the two approaches.

should I use circles or groups to tag my contacts in gmail?

I have a keen interest in better managing contacts, as per my previous post.

I’m trying to do it via Gmail now, as I wasn’t happy with my Mac Addess Book groups.

Not sure if it’s better to use G+ circles or Gmail Groups to categorize my contacts though. Any idea?

the kernel of online engagement is FUN #policymaking20

I have been doing quite a bit of work over the last years on online engagement in relation to public policy.

One lesson learnt is that at the core of it, you need to create a restricted group of people who actually enjoy to get together, discuss and collaborate on policy issues. You only need 3 or 4 people, but they must be interesting and relevant to each other. Getting these people together already means to act “as a platform”.

They should start collaborating in public (social media), and slowly, engagement can grow organically. And It helps if they have a good sense of humour. The idea of “fun” is often seen as opposite to “important”: but as I learnt from Rik Torfs at TEDxBrussels, we can be “light but deep”.

For this, you need to frame the challenge in an interesting way. It should be meaningful to users, not only to the promoter of engagement.

This is arguably the most difficult part: what people want to discuss is often different from what government want. This is why it’s  important to let participants frame questions and discussion: the symmetric participation I referred to in the past.

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