Since September 2013, I have a position as Postdoctoral Fellowship in Open Governance in the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University. My work is focused on developing research related to Open Governance – that is, how does and can government efficiently, effectively and legitimately utilize computation, information and communication technologies to connect citizens with public information, infrastructures, processes and persons as well as enable their capacity to participate in making decisions and acting in a manner that advances the well-being of society.
Current research in the Center includes participatory platforms with a public intent, open data and smarter cities. Examples of specific projects involving the Center include the 10,000 Solutions platform and The Next Policy Challenge. Policy informatics is an emerging field and practice of governance, including public policy and administration. It concerns leveraging computation and communication technology to connect individuals and information to specifically understand and address complex public policy and administration problems and realize innovations in governance processes and institutions. As such, the Center is focused on advancing the research and practice of policy informatics through three complementary research trajectories: societal change, policy analysis, and design interventions. These research trajectories span multiple fields and disciplines in the natural and social sciences, such as healthcare, education, energy and the environment, and public service. The Center is an evolving hub of interdisciplinary and cross-sector activities and people throughout ASU, the nation, and world interested in advancing the research and practice of policy informatics.
As Postdoctoral Fellow in Open Governance, I am responsible for advancing the Open Governance Initiative research agenda. This includes managing current and developing future research projects, publishing and presenting relevant research, identifying and writing grant proposals, mentoring the graduate research associates, and leading the weekly lab meetings that consist of the Center faculty and graduate research associates. This includes advancing their own work related to policy informatics and open governance. I work under the supervising faculty member, Dr. Erik Johnston, Director of the Center for Policy Informatics, and with its team of faculty and doctoral students. I also have the opportunity to collaborate with an interdisciplinary group of faculty, practitioners, and students both across and beyond Arizona State University. This three-year position is based in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona and is one of three new NSF-funded postdoctoral fellowships at the Centre for Policy Informatics.
The following describes in some detail what I’ll be working on for the next few years.
I consider the field of “open governance” in two respects:
- opening governance (as processes of social decision making) to more diverse sources of knowledge, more avenues of interaction and enhanced social understanding; and
- opening government (well, any formal institution really) as knowledge organizations, promoting the conditions where knowledge is shared and used, collaboration encouraged and capacity throughout the policy cycle enhanced.
Both of these spheres influence, interact and infiltrate the other, but can be separated conceptually for analytical purposes. Where these two avenues of inquiry intersect is also an important research area.
From this general framework, a number of specific themes and projects are organized:
1 Opening Governance
1.1 Are Crowds Wise? Using the vehicle of the Next Policy Challenge, I am seeking to develop a major research theme testing the premise of “the wisdom of crowds” in policy-relevant settings. As a first investigation, I am proposing that the first stage of the Next Policy Challenge use open ideation platforms as policy foresight mechanisms to have the crowd source and rank a priority list of emerging, complex policy challenges. These crowd-based platforms would be compared to traditional expert-based processes to determine the crowds’ effectiveness; and the various features of different open ideation and voting mechanisms would be compared in order to understand limitations, and the features that promote effectiveness. A number of interesting questions to consider in crowdsourced ideation include social influence bias, first-mover effects, and the effect of social network “success” on popularity of proposals.
1.2 Opening Channels, Reducing Noise Also through the Next Policy Challenge, this theme will explore a challenge that has emerged in many open ideation approaches: most technology platforms for engaging citizens in public deliberation succeed in opening channels for more people to contribute; what we have not yet succeeded in doing is finding robust ways of evaluating individual contributions that scale along with the increase in volume. This stream of research would experiment with existing platforms for such evaluation to consider the conditions by which contributions to open knowledge systems can generate high volume user-engagement, but through mechanisms built into the platform are capable of objectively evaluating those contributions. This approach will build on lessons developed through open source software version control (specifically recent experience using Git) as well as experience with some voting and ranking mechanisms.
1.3 Enhanced Understanding of Others’ Perspectives In a post-positivist policy environment, a recourse to “the facts” is no longer effective at settling arguments about the existence of a problem, or debates about an appropriate response to a situation. This theme will explore how “conversations” about social choice can happen where the facts are in dispute. (This theme relates to Dara Wald’s work on synthetic empathy and communicating uncertainty and risk, and builds on the 10,000 Solutions platform).
1.4 The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance Convened and organized by the GovLab, and made possible by a three-year 5 million USD grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance works to develop the blueprints for more effective and legitimate democratic institutions to the end of improving people’s lives. A core group of twelve members is complemented by an advisory network of academics, technologists, and current and former government officials. Through both face-to-face and online collaboration, the Network is focused on assessing existing innovations in governing and experimenting with new practices and, eventually new norms, for how our institutions make decisions at the local, national, and international level. Working with Erik Johnston (one of the core members of the network), I’m one of the post-docs on this project.
2 Opening Government
2.1 Government as a Knowledge Organization As an extension of my dissertation work, this theme will explore how the application of new technologies and shifts in organizational culture can improve knowledge sharing and collaboration in governments. Specific ideas to be explored include risk aversion, regulatory and legal barriers, gender issues and the limits of current technology. My efforts to contribute to a Code for America “Brigade” in Phoenix add to this theme, by exploring the value of open government in a local setting.
2.2 Government as a Flat, Mistake Tolerant Organization Part of the challenge of opening government to the outside is the risk aversion and hierarchical control inherent in government organizations, and the intolerance for mistakes both within those organizations and by the public. This theme will explore these barriers and possible solutions that keep governments from exploring innovative pathways.
2.3 What is Policy Analysis For? Leadership Perspectives My dissertation work included an investigation of what policy analysis should be, from the perspective of the policy analyst. This research theme will explore what policy analysis should be from the demand-side of the equation – the leaders and decision makers for whom policy analysis is ostensibly prepared. That is, what do decision makers want and need from the policy analysis system? This connects to the outputs of the Next Policy Challenge, and Tanya Kelley’s interest in linking outputs from 10,000 Solutions to administrative action at ASU.