Does technology play a role in bottom-up, community-based planning?

I just finished Wiki-Government by Beth Simon Noveck, Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Information Law & Policy at New York Law School. Published in the Winter 2007 issue of DemocracyJournal.org (free, sign-up required), it begins –

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity,” and nowhere is this more the case than in a democracy. Although political legitimacy demands accountability to an electoral process, those living in a democracy readily submit to what sociologist Michael Schudson calls the “permanent embarrassment” of expertise. We believe that administrative governance by a professional elite is the best way to organize decision-making in the public interest. Experts decide on acceptable levels of mercury emissions in the air, anti-discrimination rules in education and the workplace, and the standards for cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasting stations.”

The justification for this professional decision-making, articulated by theorists ranging from Max Weber to Walter Lippmann, is that while citizens can express personal opinions based on values, they are incapable of making fact-based decisions on matters of policy. For Weber, the complexities of modern governance call for “the personally detached and strictly objective expert.”

Professor Noveck challenges these long held assumptions. She begins by reviewing a number of recently developed media tools that facilitate public input, moderation, and review as part of public collaboration processes: the hugely successful Wikipedia, the Omidyar Network, a philanthropy which asks the public to participate in awarding grants, and New Assignment, a tool that enables reporters, editors, and a large groups of users to collaborate in developing “high quality work.”

Noveck then discusses social psychologist Philip Tetlock’s On Political Judgment, in which he examines the efficacy of predictions by professionals who advise government about political and economic trends. As you might imagine, the studied “professional experts” do not always shine. Ms Noveck then presents instances where public participation contributes to the public’s knowledge and interest, citing the Association of Online Cancer Resources website that enables cancer patients to exchange treatment experiences. And she goes into detail about the Peer-to-Patent project she developed for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

In the concluding pages she calls for “civic-software” that facilitates the infusion of citizen expertise into governance processes, providing the following instances where its use might prove beneficial

State Department officials do not possess better information than select graduate students in computer science about RFID chips for passports. Immigrants and welfare recipients have information based on lived as well as learned experience to contribute.

With the Campaign’s foundation beliefs based on citizen capabilities and bottom-up processes, I was left wondering about instances where carefully designed “civic-software” might facilitate public participation in land use.

Perhaps we might promote a collaboration between planners, software engineers, and other experts (oops) to create civic-software that facilitates structured opportunities for public participation in land use processes. Our wiki and blog software will provide “in-house” learning steps.

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