Can the Wikipedia-model be applied to Public Policy-Making?

In this post I argue why public policy-making is broken and propose a new model of how it could be fixed. To test these ideas in practice, I've started poli.cy.

What is public policy?

According to Wikipedia “public policy is the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver ‘outcomes — desired changes in the real world’”. The making of public policy “can be characterized as a dynamic, complex, and interactive system through which public problems are identified and resolved”.

Today, public policy-making is in a failed state in most Western countries. While politicians enviously look at the Chinese model of policy making — which seems to be more effective in producing decisions (and even good ones, if we consider e.g. electric transport) — the real problem lies elsewhere.

Having been involved in public policy-making for the past 4 years with regards to regulation of digital technologies such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies, but also from having talked to people in other fields such as climate change, my impression is that one of the key problems why better policies are so rarely discussed and implemented these days, is simply because making good policies is pretty hard and gets harder as the world becomes more complex, driven by technology, globalization and other societal macro trends. And when political discourse doesn’t reward investments in good policy proposals but is biased towards superficial ideological debates or other off-topic trivia, then good policy proposals won’t get developed, much less discussed.

Why policy-making is broken

Making good policies is a truly interdisciplinary endeavor, operating at the cross section of many expert domains, such as technology, finance, IP, data protection, healthcare, energy, climate, supply chain and many other.

Law-makers have been ridiculed for paying hundreds of millions of Euros to private consulting companies. But where else would governments get the expertise of how to regulate the most in-depth matter across all fields of the economy and beyond?

The problems with outsourcing policy-making to the “Big Four” of the consulting world are obvious:

First, having looked inside these corporate organisms myself, it’s clear that even their competency in understanding complex subject matters is severely limited, especially when it comes to new developments in deeply technology-driven fields but surely also in many other fields which I know nothing about.

Second, the Big Four are called that because they represent the interest of the biggest, most powerful corporations in our economy. They are literally reselling the influence they gain in the policy-making processes to their corporate clients —  as the cherry on top, justifying the monthly retainers paid to them.

How to make better policies

So, what is a better approach towards public policy-making? Let’s remind ourselves again of the key problems we’re facing:

  1. Developing good policies for the 21st century is hard, because it requires an enormous amount of expert knowledge in a vast field of domains

  2. Neither in ministries nor other governmental organizations, nor in those consulting enterprises that are haled to be “the best”, is enough raw competency accumulated to solve the challenges presented by (1.)

Having these problems in mind, the solution seems fairly obvious.

When describing the modern world in its full breadth became intractable for organizations that had traditionally been tasked with the job, such as the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica or Brockhaus, we barely noticed it, because their job had already been taken over by Wikipedia — the native knowledge resources of the information age.

How then, could not describing, but constructively interfering with the world so as to change it towards some desired goal, be any less difficult, if not impossible, to solve by a single institution —  be it an elected government or a privately contracted consulting firm?

Wikipedia has shown that when a problem is too hard to solve by a single institution, no matter how powerful, the only way left to solve it is through the self-governed coordination of millions of peers.

Wikipedia is based on what academics call commons-based peer production, i.e. a model of socio-economic production, that is defined by the openness of its outputs as well as by a decentralized, participant-driven method of working. Although analyzed ad nauseum for two decades, it has never been truly understood how to transplant the success of Wikipedia to other domains. It may be argued that this problem can be reduced to the more general case of building any self-sustaining community of content-generating users on the internet, capable of producing outputs that matter to orders of magnitude more people than were involved in producing it.

Where the Wikipedia-model fits to the problem of public policy-making

Description vs. Interference

Building anything, requires an accurate model of the problem domain. Creating good public policies is the act of “building” a better world, by giving the agents inside of it a superior set of rules to act by. In order to achieve that aim, whoever creates such public policy necessarily requires an accurate model of the world they attempt to remake.

This is where the first set of commonalities arises. Wikipedia is a knowledge resource that describes the world. Policies can be considered as coordination resources that interfere with the world based on a certain model or description of it, as laid down e.g. in Wikipedia. This begs the question:

If the knowledge resource that describes the world the best is produced by an instance of platform-mediated commons-based peer-production, wouldn’t the formulation of policy changes be also suited to such a process?

How to get the best minds to solve public issues

What can be said with certainty about Wikipedia, is that the platform discovered a superior knowledge production model that satisfies the same demand that had previously been served by traditional publishers of encyclopedias.

What is astonishing about this simple, matter-of-fact statement, is in how Wikipedia functions as an organization. Wikipedia has, outside the foundation steering the infrastructure on which the online encyclopedia runs, no employees. It has no organized roles around knowledge production or provides systems of information access for research. Wikipedia instead encourages volunteers to contribute knowledge from inside their fields of expertise free of charge, to jointly create a globe-spanning knowledge resource. 

How did the contributions to Wikipedia reach both the breadth and depth required to serve as a useful, up-to-date, authoritative knowledge resource for the information age, obliterating its antiquated predecessors?

Contributing to Wikipedia has its own set of incentives, that don’t speak to the vast majority of people consuming the resource produced by its community. In fact, unlike the typical 80/20 distribution of internet platforms like Reddit, Wikipedia has more like a 98/2 distribution of consumer vs. producer (2006).

Although this has been a common criticism directed at Wikipedia, it seems unsurprising that not many people find pleasure in engaging in the kind of work necessary to write down an accurate description of some subject matter detail, including sources, that satisfy the standards set by the community. The threshold of contributing successfully to Wikipedia is much higher that e.g. posting a cat picture on Reddit.

The same would be true for public policy creation. Indeed, even fewer experts would possibly be interested in engaging in the tedious work of formulating coherent policy proposals that make sense on the many levels at which they will have to, from legal dogmatics to whatever expert matter they regulate about the economy or life in contemporary society.

This isn’t a problem though, as long as at least one unbiased expert is convinced that they should share their insights in the form of policy proposals. What, if only biased experts take up the work? Well, then what have we lost?

Shouldn’t democracy function like that anyway?

Thanks for asking. Of course, yes. We intuitively know this to be true: 

If the smartest people in the world magically came together and worked out the best possible set of policies to fight climate change effectively, we would have no good reason to reject them, or say, call up our representatives and convince them to vote for them on our behalf.

Or would we?

Democracy is messy, even more so in an age where the sheer concept of truth has evaporated before our eyes, amongst other reasons as a result of individualized news feeds, with high-resolution, pay-per-view write access for “advertisers”, which in election year are drowned by political interest groups, operating with money of questionable origin.

Playing Devil’s advocate, we could go as far as saying that the biggest challenge to good policies today, is not whether we can reach consensus on what the best policies are. In fact, the only fact on which there is consensus nowadays, is that there is no consensus on facts anymore. So, if the facts aren’t clear, what is the point of proposing policies, let alone sensible ones, for which facts are nothing short of the fundamental axioms under which they operate?

Reality is, of course, more nuanced. And I truly believe there is a legitimate recognition of quality and substance still in existence across the wider public, especially when the labor is born in a fundamentally democratic, bottom up process by, what are essentially strangers on the internet, like you and me.

More to the point: let’s assume that climate change is in fact real and that there is a set of policies available that if we were to adopt them today, we could still prevent the worst effects of climate change. 

First of all, what would those policies look like? One thing I’d bet on, is that they would forbid or reduce a lot of the things we enjoy today as consumers in Europe, US and many other parts of the world, such as cheap flights, cars, global trade, meat and lots of other agricultural products, possibly data centers, other infrastructure, etc. If we’d be really serious about stopping climate change, we’d be having that conversation.

If we are to seriously adopt such radical policies within the next ten years or so, is there even another way imaginable than one where we, the consumers, lay these restrictions upon us ourselves? No elected official has the incentive to propose such policies themselves, since it would be their guarantee not to be reelected. It is only the people themselves that can agree to such far-reaching disruptions to modern consumer lifestyle.

Whether to bother building such a Wikipedia for public policy proposals even if there is not even agreement on facts, reduces to the question whether, given that climate change could be real and there could in fact be reasonable policies waiting to be developed and adopted that would prevent the worst effects, it is worth to fight for those policies to be developed, debated and implemented. To me, that answer is yes.

The Recipe

To transplant the success of Wikipedia in producing a publicly-trusted, continuously updated canon of facts about the world, to the domain of public policy-making, is a creative challenge. 

Embracing plurality

Any platform serious about solving the public policy crisis has to embrace the one remaining fact, namely, that people differ in their opinions about facts, i.e. what is true. To some, this development is still a bitter pill to swallow. Yet, I think the phenomena around #fake news we’re observing are an uncomfortable transition on our path towards a new equilibrium.

The Wikipedia equivalent of public policy has to give every opinion voiced in the form of a proposal equal representation on its platform. There must not be any a priori editorial attempt at forging an “objective canon of good policies” as one might naively assume when transposing the Wikipedia idea to public policy making.

The platform should be based on creative commons licenses like Wikipedia, and be easily linked to with permanent links, potentially including content-addressed hashes, to serve as a reliable resource for debates in external fora over long periods of time.

Quality-control & discovery

At Wikipedia, most contributions are rejected based on their lack of form alone. The effort of creating something worthy of inclusion into a resource as well-groomed as Wikipedia, exceeds the payoff of most types of abuse.

Ultimately, the hardness of the problem to be solved acts like a noise filter.

Of course, corporate whitewashing or concealing, tuning of biography pages or other kinds of more subtle abuse, are harder to detect. Yet, Wikipedia has found a way to stay unbiased enough to be relied upon by millions, maybe billions by now. This feat is due to a combination of technical policies governing write access to the Wikipedia knowledge resource, as well as social protocols and personal ethics shared by community members.

For a public policy platform, a number of strategies might be available to surface quality while staying neutral as a platform. Unsophisticated algorithms are available that may allow users of such a platform to surface the most discussed, most lengthy, most requested policy proposals on the platform. Such a “dashboard” may even be their primary way of accessing the resource. Yet the platform takes no preferred stance towards any proposal.

Relationship to constitutional policy-makers: or how to get political traction

From our initial definition of public policy, i.e. a “dynamic, complex, and interactive system through which public problems are identified and resolved”, we can deduce that constitutional policy-makers are one of many pieces to a bigger puzzle. There are many forms in which influence is exerted on policies that are formally adopted by national and international legislative bodies. What is typically referred to as lobbying, is a practice that is not accounted for in the formal protocols that govern write access to a nation’s policy resource. Yet, it is a real phenomenon we’re all familiar with or at least exposed to, if we want it or not.

In the same vein, the Wikipedia of public policy — or rather the content thereon — would slowly but surely exert its influence onto constitutional policy-makers. Why, you ask? Because the platform offers qualitatively superior policy proposals free of charge to its audience, among which are the very policy-makers that today are contracting out that job to clueless consultants for millions of Euros.

The equivalent to the publishers of encyclopedias which Wikipedia diminished to mere printing presses of internet content slowly over years, would be national and international legislative bodies to Wikipedia’s public policy counterpart.

What should such a platform look like?

Before we talk about looks, let’s talk about functionality. In that respect, the platform should provide the following resources:

  1. a public repository and version control system for any policy that shapes life in contemporary society, from traditional laws to the terms of service of popular internet platforms and critical infrastructure providers

  2. a set of tools empowering every citizen or interest group, including governments themselves, to monitor and formally propose a change in or addition to current policies pertaining to a particular territory or service

  3. community-guided, public discourse and structured discussion venues for debating arguments and different perspectives among stakeholders around policy implementations, connected goals and underlying values as well as voting tools to gauge movements in opinion and consensus

Poli.cy is a non-commercial, open source platform for drafting policy proposals, monitoring current and future policies, and expert debate on policies. The platform is aimed at policy-makers, interest groups, NGOs, citizens, journalists, information brokers, consultants, students, etc.

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