When Ordinary Americans Accomplish What the Government Can’t

in The National Journal: “Washington may be paralyzed by partisanship, but across the country, grassroots innovators are crafting solutions to our problems….This special issue of National Journal celebrates these pragmatic problem-solvers in business, the civic sector, local government, and partnerships that creatively combine all three. At a time of endemic stalemate in the nation’s capital, think of it as a report from the America that works (to borrow a recent phrase from The Economist)….
Another significant message is that the communications revolution, by greatly accelerating the sharing of ideas, has produced a “democratization of innovation,” as author Vijay Vaitheeswaran put it in his 2012 book, Need, Speed, and Greed. This dynamic has simultaneously allowed breakthroughs to disseminate faster than ever and empowered more people inside companies and communities to tackle problems previously left to elites. “One of the most interesting stories in social change today is how much creative problem-solving is emerging from citizens scattered far and wide who are taking it upon themselves to fix things and who, in many cases, are outperforming traditional organizations,” David Bornstein, founder of the Dowser.org website that tracks social innovation, wrote in The New York Times last year. Our honoree Eric Greitens, the former Navy SEAL who founded The Mission Continues for other post-9/11 veterans, personifies this trend. Across the categories, many honorees insist they have pursued new approaches in part because they could no longer wait for Washington to address the problems they face. In a world where barriers to the dispersal of ideas are crumbling, waiting for elites to propose answers may soon seem as outdated as waiting for a dial-up connection to the Internet.
The third conclusion limits the first two. Even many of the most dynamic grassroots innovations will remain isolated islands of excellence in this continent-sized society without energy and amplification from the top. Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, notes the federal government is unavoidably a major force on many of the challenges facing America, particularly reforming education, health care, and training; developing regional economic strategies; and providing physical and digital infrastructure. Washington need not direct or control the response to these problems, but change on a massive scale is always harder without stronger signals and incentives than the federal government has provided in recent years. “It is possible to feed change aggressively from the bottom,” Kettl says. “[But] the federal government, for better or worse, inevitably is involved…. There’s a natural limit in what’s possible to bubble up from the bottom….
Special issue at https://web.archive.org/web/2013/http://www.nationaljournal.com/back-in-business ”

Technocracy within Representative Democracy

Christina Ribbhagen’s new paper on “Technocracy within Representative Democracy: Technocratic Reasoning and Justification among Bureaucrats and Politicians”: ” How can you possibly have ‘Technocracy within Representative Democracy’, as suggested in the title of this thesis? Shouldn’t the correct title be ‘Technocracy or Representative Democracy’, the sceptic might ask? Well, if technocracy is strictly defined, as rule by an elite of (technical) experts, the sceptic obviously has a point. Democracy means rule by the people (demos) and not rule by (technical) experts. However, in tune with Laird (1990; see also Fischer 2000), I argue that merely establishing the absence of a simple technocratic ruling class is only half the story; instead a more subtle interpretation of technocracy is needed.
Laird (1990, p. 51) continues his story by stating that: ‘The problem of technocracy is the problem of power relations and how those relations are affected by the importance of esoteric knowledge in modern society. The idea that such knowledge is important is correct. The idea that it is important because it leads to the rise of a technically skilled ruling class is mistaken. The crucial issue is not who gains power but who loses it. Technocracy is not the rise of experts, it is the decline of citizens’. Or as formulated by Fischer (2000), ‘One of the most important contemporary functions of technocratic politics, it can be argued, rests not so much on its ascent to power (in the traditional sense of the term) as on the fact that its growing influence shields the elites from political pressure from below’. The crucial issue for the definition of technocracy then is not who governs, rather it lies in the mode of politics. As argued by Fischer (2000), too often writers have dismissed the technocratic thesis on the grounds that experts remain subordinate to top-level economic and political elites. A consequence of this, he continues, is that this argument ‘overlooks the less visible discursive politics of technocratic expertise. Not only does the argument fail to appreciate the way this technical, instrumental mode of inquiry has come to shape our thinking about public problems, but it neglects the ways these modes of thought have become implicitly embedded in our institutional discourses and practices’ (p. 17). Thus, technocracy here should not be understood as ‘rule by experts’, but rather ‘government by technique’ focusing on the procedures and content of politics, suggesting that technocratic reasoning and justification has gained ground and dominates the making of public policy (Boswell, 2009; Fischer, 1990; Meynaud, 1969; Radaelli, 1999b;). To be sure, indirectly this will have consequences as to who will win or lose power. A policy issue or process that is technocratically framed is likely to disempower those lacking information and expertise within the area (Fischer, 1990; Laird, 19903), while supplying those with information and expertise with a ‘technocratic key’ (Uhrwing, 2001) leading to the door of political power.”

Informed, Structured Citizen Networks Benefit Government Best

Dan Bevarly in his blog, aheadofideas: “An online collective social process based on the Group Forming Networks (GFN) model with third party facilitation (perhaps via a community foundation or other local nonprofit) offers an effective solution for successful resident engagement for public policy making. It is essential that the process be accepted by elected officials and other policy making agencies that must contribute information and data for the networks, and accept the collaboration of their subgroups and participants as valid, deliberative civic engagement.
Residents will become engaged around a policy discussion (and perhaps join a network on the topic) based on a certain variables including:

  • interest, existing knowledge or expertise in the subject matter;
  • personal or community impact or relevance from decisions surrounding the policy topic(s); and
  • belief that participation will lead to real or visible outcome or resolution.

Government (as policy maker) must support these networks by providing objective, in-depth information about a policy issue, project or challenge to establish and feed a knowledge base for citizen/resident education.
Government needs informed citizen participation that helps address its many challenges with new ideas and knowledge. It is in their best interest to embrace structured networks to increase resident participation and consensus in the policy making process, and to increase efficiency in providing programs and services. But it should not be responsible for maintaining these networks….”

What the Obama Campaign's Chief Data Scientist Is Up to Now

Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic: “By all accounts, Rayid Ghani’s data work for President Obama’s reelection campaign was brilliant and unprecedented. Ghani probably could have written a ticket to work at any company in the world, or simply collected speaking fees for a few years telling companies how to harness the power of data like the campaign did.
But instead, Ghani headed to the University of Chicago to bring sophisticated data analysis to difficult social problems. Working with Computation Institute and the Harris School of Public Policy, Ghani will serve as the chief data scientist for the Urban Center for Computation and Data.”

Innovations in American Government Award

Press Release: “Today the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University announced the Top 25 programs in this year’s Innovations in American Government Award competition. These government initiatives represent the dedicated efforts of city, state, federal, and tribal governments and address a host of policy issues including crime prevention, economic development, environmental and community revitalization, employment, education, and health care. Selected by a cohort of policy experts, researchers, and practitioners, four finalists and one winner of the Innovations in American Government Award will be announced in the fall. A full list of the Top 25 programs is available here.
A Culture of Innovation
A number of this year’s Top 25 programs foster a new culture of innovation through online collaboration and crowdsourcing. Signaling a new trend in government, these programs encourage the generation of smart solutions to existing and seemingly intractable public policy problems. LAUNCH—a partnership among NASA, USAID, the State Department, and NIKE—identifies and scales up promising global sustainability innovations created by individual citizens and organizations. The General Services Administration’s Challenge.gov uses crowdsourcing contests to solve government issues: government agencies post challenges, and the broader American public is awarded for submitting winning ideas. The Department of Transportation’s IdeaHub also uses an online platform to encourage its employees to communicate new ideas for making the department more adaptable and enterprising.”