The rise of the citizen expert

Beth Noveck (The GovLab) at Policy Network: “Does the EU need to be more democratic? It is not surprising that Jürgen Habermas, Europe’s most famous democratic theorist, laments the dearth of mechanisms for “fulfilling the citizens’ political will” in European institutions. The controversial handling of the Greek debt crisis, according to Habermas, was clear evidence of the need for more popular input into otherwise technocratic decision-making. Incremental progress toward participation does not excuse a growing crisis of democratic legitimacy that, he says, is undermining the European project….

For participatory democrats like Habermas, opportunities for deliberative democratic input by citizens is essential to legitimacy. And, to be sure, the absence of such opportunities is no guarantee of more effective outcomes. A Greek referendum in July 2015 scuttled European austerity plans.

But pitting technocracy against citizenship is a false dichotomy resulting from the long-held belief, even among reformers, that only professional public servants or credentialed elites possess the requisite abilities to govern in a complex society. Citizens are spectators who can express opinions but cognitive incapacity, laziness or simply the complexity of modern society limit participation to asking people what they feel by means of elections, opinion polls, or social media.

Although seeing technocracy as the antinomy of citizenship made sense when expertise was difficult to pinpoint, now tools like LinkedIn, which make knowhow more searchable, are making it possible for public institutions to get more help from more diverse sources – including from within the civil service – systematically and could enable more members of the public to participate actively in governing based on what they know and care about. It is high time for institutions to begin to leverage such platforms to match the need for expertise to the demand for it and, in the process, increase engagement becoming more effective and more legitimate.

Such software does more than catalogue credentials. The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise so that the person who has taken courses on an online learning platform can showcase those credentials with a searchable digital badge. The person who has answered thousands of questions on a question-and-answer website can demonstrate their practical ability and willingness to help. Ratings by other users further attest to the usefulness of their contributions. In short, it is becoming possible to discover what people know and can do in ever more finely tuned ways and match people to opportunities to participate that speak to their talents….

In an era in which it is commonplace for companies to use technology to segment customers in an effort to promote their products more effectively, the idea of matching might sound obvious. To be sure, it is common practice in business – but in the public sphere, the notion that participation should be tailored to the individual’s abilities and tethered to day-to-day practices of governing, not politicking, is new.  More accurately, it is a revival of Athenian life where citizen competence and expertise were central to economic and military success.

What makes this kind of targeted engagement truly democratic – and citizenship in this vision more active, robust, and meaningful – is that such targeting allows us to multiply the number and frequency of ways to engage productively in a manner consistent with each person’s talents. When we move away from focusing on citizen opinion to discovering citizen expertise, we catalyse participation that is also independent of geographical boundaries….(More)”