Law in Contemporary Society
What if the federal government were to award some amount of money (say $10 or $25 million) annually to the best social programs proposed through a public wiki website? With money clearly dedicated, a well-designed website, and thought-out rules and criteria for evaluation, I think the wiki would attract lots of attention and effort.

One of Obama’s change messages is that solutions have to come from the bottom up. He wants the general public to be more involved in government and points to the internet as a means. The wiki format would be a good way to deliver. With billions doled out to corporations and public works stimulus, this could provide politically powerful balance and unique impact.

This ‘bottom up’ approach could tap valuable resources, avoid rigidity in communication and role-assignment, and encourage productive engagement.

(1) People actually involved know what the problems are and have local knowledge of what can really help, whereas top-down decision-makers have comparatively limited access.

(2) The wiki format would organize iterative communication that, depending on how it is managed, could propel nuanced schools of thought regarding a wide variety of problems concurrently.

(3) The broad population could represent and assume a fuller spectrum of personalities/objectives and roles. Top-down decision-makers and their representatives are more constrained by reputation and time.

(4) People would be better able to contribute to government in personally meaningful ways. There would be a populist bridge from opinions/knowledge to action, and more could find themselves in actual program roles matched to their creativity and capability.

(5) This kind of possibility and interactivity would help displace apathy and associated habits (e.g. TV-watching).

To my mind, this would help the administration actualize a promise, create a culture of community organizing, and provide results at a good price. And I think the website itself would be a fascinating crucible, storage bank of ideas, and historical record – emergently and dynamically representing our identities, needs, and aspirations.

(For comparison, consider Netflix's choice to turn their movie recommendation project into a public competition. They were struggling to improve their accuracy in predicting what movies people would like based on the ones they’d already rated, so they offered a $1 million prize to the first outside group that could achieve the desired result for them. Many have taken up the challenge and some are nearing success. It provides a fun problem and learning opportunity that has value for people aside from the possibility of winning the prize. It is a case of two parties each having one-half of a pair of scissors. Netflix has the money, the data, and the business, but they don’t have the resources to figure it out in-house. The people have the enthusiasm, the knowledge, and the time, but they didn’t have sufficient forum or connectedness to the problem. The competition activates value on both sides.)

-- GregOrr - 02 Mar 2009

Hi, Greg. I think this is a fascinating idea, and a particularly powerful form of bottom-up construction that would incorporate and enable voices traditionally left out of conversations about social change. I think, though, that it would be important to also consider the wiki format's limitations. While almost everyone has access to a computer these days and knows how to perform basic functions on the Internet, there are still people in communities who would not be able to take advantage of this technology. Whether it's because some people can't read or do not have the time after work to read or contribute to online conversations, the wiki approach may not be as truly bottom-up as many of us would like. At "worst" but certainly still valuable, it would be a middle-up approach (if that makes any sense).

-- JosephLu - 02 Mar 2009

I love the idea of balancing the corporate bail-out with a "bottom-up" social problem bail-out. While Joseph raises valid points about the limitation of the wiki format, particularly the problem of a skewed respondent population, I think it's especially valuable to start thinking about a way to rectify the massive sense of injustice felt by most of the U.S. population at the execution of the bailout.

On the other hand, perhaps it's counter-productive to think of things in those terms. Even a $700 billion community programs bailout would not rectify the injustices and imbalances that created the problems. Talking about a "good" bailout in this way makes me think of the conversations we've had trying to justify working at a big firm and what not. It begins to feel like a rationalization; throwing money at something in order to make ourselves feel less bad about whatever role our culture, class, or chosen profession played in the economic destruction we are now facing.

-- MolissaFarber - 03 Mar 2009

Joseph, thanks. I agree that some communities would not have the means to contribute directly, though one might hope enterprising do-gooders would be there to act as their mouthpiece. To me, the more pressing concern is the likelihood that the format would produce any actionable ideas/plans at all that can either compete with what we get from top-down government or address overlooked issues. The idea is a non-starter if it fundamentally can't do one of these things. (One could imagine insufficient interest, coordination, or proficiency.) Beyond that core conceptual hurdle lie many operational problems, like organizational management and oversight. (I’ve thought about these problems and would be happy to discuss if there’s enough interest.) A key advantage, though, is that, like an internet startup, it’s not expensive to try and doesn’t have to work perfectly right away.

Molissa, the juxtaposition of this and the financial bailouts has emotional resonance, which might make it politically viable, but a ‘social program bailout’ isn’t really the thrust of the idea for me. I’m thinking of putting in motion an alternative/complementary means of government. Social programs provide a relatively low-expertise, low-risk, feel-good ground for development.

In a country of 300 million increasingly heterogeneous people dealing with increasingly multifarious and technical problems, we have 1 president, 535 members of Congress, and 9 Supreme Court justices. Everything that gets done by the federal government ultimately flows through them. Do you, personally, feel well-represented by these people? Do you think they can handle the job? I get the feeling that it’s too much. Think of how complicated the Stimulus Bill is and how fast it was rushed into law. Look at Ben Bernanke’s face in a Congressional hearing when he has to repeat himself and answer badly framed questions ad nauseum. It seems to me they are straining for answers and “ceremonial adequacy” in equal parts. It would be nice if the people could take more of the burden on themselves.

-- GregOrr - 04 Mar 2009

The bottom-up idea is a great one. The X Prize Foundation has been quite successful in using this approach. For instance, Richard Branson is implementing Bruce Rutan's $10m winning design that enabled private spaceflight.

I think the genius behind this approach is the use of society's collective resources while avoiding the politically-harmful brand of "socialism." Since this bottom-up approach provides a monetary incentive, society's work can be viewed as a form of rational-actor capitalism. Perhaps we want our law-makers to partake in this "script" to facilitate achieving the desired gains.

-- KeithEdelman - 04 Mar 2009

I see this as an interesting idea, but given public distrust for the format, it would likely be a difficult sell. One of the main tools to combat the stimulus package was to point out parts that, taken out of context, could be seen as wasteful. The Governor of Lousiana’s dislike of knowing when a volcano will explode aside, I just think this would present insurmountable political issues.

I do think this is an interesting idea, although with regards to #5, I think those who would participate in this project would not be the apathetic targets we’d like to see engaged. Joseph makes an excellent observation here as well with regards to access. I was actually going to mention the X Prize as well, and the many similar projects that have spawned from it. However, there are two fundamental differences between that/the Netflix idea and what you propose:

-Private funding/company backing the project, as opposed to it coming directly from the top -Project had a specific goal

Take my comments perhaps as a cynical musing, but on a different note, similar things do exist. From working in a political office, the innumerous staff members of those 545 government officers you mention do look to the public for ideas and concepts. Obama was especially fond of doing this via his campaign site. However, a large public effort like this could only be positive for engaging people in the political process, and it would be interesting to see what kind of ideas it would bring up.

-- AaronShepard - 04 Mar 2009

John Mccain proposed what sounded like a very good bottom-up scheme in the general election. This kind of bottom up scheme plays just as well as a good old fashioned-'merican ingenuity narrative as any kind of socialist narrative because it is all about awarding individual creativity.

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 04 Mar 2009

One problem that I can see with crowdsourcing in the political sphere is that political ideologies would drive a wedge into the unity of purpose needed for collaboration. For example, crowdsourcing of legislation drafting through a wiki would be problematic because of edit wars by political factions. And if the format is a prize competition as in Greg's original example, who picks the winner? A flac from the ruling party?

Isn't voting the original form of crowdsourcing? I'll shut up now; I've never taken a political science course in my life...

-- GavinSnyder - 05 Mar 2009

Great idea Joseph. A fascinating discussion. My brief observation is that Open source software development has harnessed bottom-up collaboration in tremendously successful ways. In fact, the Mozilla Firefox browser that I proudly use every day was an Open source creation. This gives me confidence that collaborative projects can work very well.

-- PetefromOz - 10 Mar 2009



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