The Recovery Accountability And Transparency Board (RATB) is sponsoring a public, web-based dialogue on promising IT to support transparency and accountability of the Administration’s Recovery Act spending. It is groundbreaking. However, seeming parallels with Digg, Slashdot, and other social media sites are misleading. Indeed, they obscure steps that could still be taken to make this effort, and future efforts, highly effective models of citizen engagement and transparency. Clay Shirky is a wise observer of the rise of easy online collaboration processes for large groups. His work provides us with a framework to clarify the ways in which the Recovery.gov effort is fundamentally unlike many more familiar social networks and to suggest tweaks that would help it realize its unique potential.
Shirky’s Promise, Tool, Bargain
In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky argues that successful web-based coordination communities meet three challenges:
- A plausible promise – not too mundane, not too sweeping – that persuades would be participants to join the group
- A useful tool that supports the desired coordination, and
- A bargain that develops through interaction and over time, often implicitly, which specifies what participants can expect and what is expected of them
For instance, Delicious.com’s promise is that it provides personal value – storing your bookmarks and making them accessible from anywhere – from the get go. The tagging component of Flickr provides a tool that makes it easier for members to connect with other participants who have posted similar photos, famously, of the Coney Island mermaid parade. And the bargain for Flickr’s “Black and White Maniacs” group requires that participants who have posted a photo immediately comment on at least two other photos, in order to keep an interaction going.
How does the National Dialogue website fare on Shirky’s criteria?
Promise: the good stuff is vague
The introduction bills the Dialogue as an opportunity to help the Administration keep its commitment to make Recovery spending transparent and accountable:
Your ideas can directly impact how Recovery.gov operates and ensure that
our economic recovery is the most transparent and accountable in history….
Participants can refine these ideas in open discussion, and vote the best ones to the top.
The call for participation email message from 4/23 notes
The results of the dialogue will be reviewed for the most innovative suggestions around making Recovery.gov a more effective portal for transparency.
The “about” page makes a commitment:
Upon the close of this dialogue on May 3rd, 2009, the President’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will review the results of this discussion.
The promise is vague, but might be glossed as “you can put your proposal in front of us – the government – and we will review it carefully”.
Unlike the first promise of Delicious, thenationaldialogue.org does not promise to serve the participant in a direct or tangible way, nor to connect him or her with other participants.
Further, the central part of the promise – “we will review it carefully” – in fact happens mostly outside of the tool, indeed, out of sight.
Tool: the payoff happens offline and out of sight
The website seems adequate for the first part of the promise – participants can submit proposals quite easily and there is a tutorial as well. There is little to go on to determine how well the tool serves the review process. Since proposals can be sorted by average user rating and number of comments and the invitation states that participants can vote the best ideas to the top, we can infer that these criteria will be used to select the proposals for review. But, again, it’s vague – the top 10 ideas? The top 10%?
An even bigger question is whether voting and commenting by fellow participants are appropriate features, given the promise and purpose. Digg and Slashdot are misleading models for thenationaldialogue.org: they support lateral communication between participants. For Digg or Slashdot, the reading audience is also the voting audience.
Thenationaldialogue.org supports, instead, vertical and asymmetric communication – from participants up to RATB IT staff. These ultimate “idea consumers” are as far as we know not the voters or commentators on the site. Thus, it’s plausible and even reasonable that Federal IT staff will evaluate and adopt ideas with low ratings or few comments. So, how will participant ratings of ideas be helpful to them?
Further, one could imagine situations where voting is actively counterproductive – if a small company or one person firm proposes an idea that is feasible and valuable but contrary to the interests of a large IT company whose employees are participating in force on the site, the behemoth could easily and conclusively vote down the dangerous (to them) idea. It is to the credit of the participants that this doesn’t appear to be happening, but it does raise the question of why voting is a feature on this site.
(In a future post, I’ll examine ways in which the RATB could create future events that explicitly supported participant to participant interaction as an appropriate part of the promise, tool, and bargain, but for this post I’ll focus solely on the Dialogue as an event for suggesting IT ideas for Federal review and adoption.)
Bargain: “Wham, bam, thank you, citizens” is not the way to go
With only one week allotted for the current discussion, thenationaldialogue.org is not yet in a position to benefit from an evolving bargain – there’s no time for it to develop.
Inches from greatness: Suggested improvements
I’ve worked with the Federal Government, notably on an early web-conference in support of then Vice President Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative – similar in some respects to this effort – , and I’m fully aware that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.
It is remarkable that this site exists, and I think it provides a great foundation for future efforts. It also makes sense to view this event in a broader context and consider additions and changes that build relationships not only for this event, but also for similar events in the future. So I’d like to focus on where RATB could take it from here.
Clarify and bolster the promise of careful review
RATB should recognize that some of the lessons from Digg, Slashdot, and similar social media sites do not apply, to the extent that this site is for asymmetrical communication between developers and idea-mongers on one side and Federal IT staff on the other and tune the explicit promise with this in mind.
RATB should clarify whether each idea will be reviewed and, if not, how comments and ratings will be used to prioritize ideas for review, and announce this clarified promise on the site and in email in the coming days.
At this point, it seems likely that the total number of ideas will come to less than 600.
It would not be unreasonable for participants to expect that each idea will get at least one thoughtful comment. In any case, RATB should be explicit, transparent even, about this.
Align the tool with the promise – make the review transparent
To fulfill the promise of careful review for ideas, RATB could require that its IT reviewers use this site for comments and votes on the ideas, rather than doing the review offline and out of view. Comments and votes could be anonymous, if necessary. But thoughtful feedback, on the substance of the ideas, their feasibility in the ARRA context, and on the way participants presented them, could be a huge win for participants. And it would be a tangible fulfillment of this site’s promise.
For future events, RATB and others in the Administration should consider whether voting and rating is appropriate, given the differences in social context between Digg and these events.
Build the bargain for the future: there will be more dialogues
Shirky reminds us that the bargain develops, organically and implicitly, over time.
If you look carefully, you’ll see that the content of the earlier Health IT dialogue from October 2008 is still present on www.thenationaldialogue.org. From what I can tell, the profiles and userids of the previous event are entirely disjunct with this event.
I’d suggest that future dialogues break the precedent of discontinuity and, instead, build explicitly from this event. RATB should invite current participants to continue to follow the development of recovery.org via a specific feed (email, twitter, blog). People arriving in a week or a month or a year should of course also be invited to join, but current participants should be treated, welcomed, and celebrated as “early adopters” and pioneers.
In addition to using the site to present Federal IT staff comments and ratings, it could also be used for new ideas, initiated either by RATB or by ordinary participants. The need for new ideas and the inevitable generation of new ideas surely won’t stop on May 3rd.
Keeping the site “hot” would jumpstart subsequent dialogues and build a base of participants who are wise both in the use of the tool itself, and in the issues and constraints involved in Federal IT issues.
RATB might also draw on its interagency relationships to bring promising ideas to the attention of IT staff in other Departments and Agencies. Minimally, it could send email showing other IT managers how to use the tags and the search engine for a quick review of ideas that may be of interest to them. (Imagine a headline highlighting a small business that used this Dialogue to grow its relationship not only with RATB but with another Federal agency, with great benefits to transparency and efficiency.)
More on Recovery.gov listening efforts [back]
It is too soon to tell whether the promise will be fulfilled, but two things suggest that some amount of review is already happening:
First, as of 3pm ET on Friday afternoon, Google reveals that 13 of the roughly 400 ideas have received comments from participants who are designated “dialogue catalysts”, notably one person from the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. A tweet from @Natldialogue describes the catalysts’ role as trying “to ask focusing [questions and ] add detail [to] discussions; they promote further exploration w/o a particular POV”. A review of the catalysts’ comments suggests that they are meeting their goal, typically encouraging the author of the idea and asking in specific ways for more information. But why for only 3% of the ideas?
Second, mass email from the organizers to the participants on the morning of the fifth day noted:
The Dialogue has brought forth lively discussion on how to make Recovery.gov a place where the public can monitor the expenditure and use of recovery funds. The growing number of users and ideas posted on the site in just a few days illustrate how interested the IT community is in impacting the operation of Recovery.gov….
Now with three days left in this week-long Recovery Dialogue, we are receiving some interesting and thoughtful submissions. However, there are a few key concepts around which we need your ideas and approaches.
This could be read as a direct reaction to the ideas posted, but given its vagueness, it’s equally plausible that this email was drafted before the Dialogue began.