David Eaves on Moneyball, Policy Wikis, and Gov 2.0
August 6th, 2010

When I noticed that David Eaves’ Gov2.0 Expo talk on Open Data, Baseball and Government referred to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, I knew my dad would want me to interview him. I’d also read David’s chapter in Open Government about understanding and manifesting the transition to open government, and was definitely interested in interviewing him myself. So in the spirit of feeding two birds with one seed, I reached out. David is an expert in public policy, open systems, and collaboration who advises the Mayor of Vancouver on open government, works with two spin-offs of the Harvard Negotiation Project, serves as a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University, publishes frequently, and presumably makes time to eat, sleep, and play. In other words, David is an alchemist. Following are excerpts from our conversation.

In his Open Government chapter, David argues that a precondition for achieving Tim O’Reilly’s vision of government-as-platform is the capacity for self-organization. (You’re encouraged to re-read that last sentence.) Intrigued, I ask him to elaborate on the implications of enhanced governmental self-organization, not on its operations, but on policy content. Put simply, if governments were more self-organized, how would that affect actual policies? And more specifically, will greater governmental self-organization generate more cross-departmental, integrative, or what I like to refer to as ‘systems policies’? On a practical level, David replies, governmental self-organization will help prevent conflicts in policy-making. “To be fair, we’re actually pretty good at preventing policy conflicts. The problem is that we only discover them relatively late in the process.” Self-organization enables policymakers to discover conflicts earlier, preventing enormous amounts of unnecessary work, and making enormous sense from a “sanity perspective.”

Beyond that, he continues, self-organization is already spawning the kinds of systems policies I describe via GCPEDIA, the Canadian government’s internal wiki for collaboration and knowledge sharing. David describes a scenario in which a policymaker posts the first draft of a bill on GCPEDIA . There, it is collaboratively edited by policymakers, coming to represent the interests of those who are, well, interested, and shifting from a malleable draft into something more solid and difficult to edit. By the time it makes it through the wrath of many, divergent visions and revisions, the bill is that much readier for cabinet. David notes how this process “inverts the historic way of doing things”; instead of going vertically from individual departments to the cabinet, bills engage multiple departments laterally before heading upwards, and instead of holding off until the end of the process to influence a bill, policymakers must get engaged early on. The process itself – by being cross-departmental, integrative, and effectively more democratic – creates conditions conducive to the emergence of bills that likewise possess those virtues. (This process is reminiscent of Charles Armstrong’s fascinating chapter in Open Government on Emergent Democracy, which describes mechanisms – like a fluid proxying system, and not unlike the GCPEDIA process – for enabling democracy to emerge.) Although GCPEDIA is immensely valuable, David cautions that “public policy wikis don’t work…[because] the public starts with fundamentally different assumptions,” and policy decisions are ultimately remain in the purview of government. Which brings us back to the original question; David sees GCPEDIA as an example of how governmental self-organization can bear fruit in policy, but he seems to put more faith in internal self-organization than the self-organization of our civic system as a whole, including both government and citizens. I’m curious what he thinks about Mark Elliot’s work with the Future Melbourne Wiki (who I interviewed directly afterward, post forthcoming).

Interested in his notion of ‘long tail public policy,’ I ask David if he’s familiar with The Extraordinairies. ‘Long tail public policy’ (which I referred to in my thesis as ‘long tail governance’ – don’t you Love it when you independently come up with the same ideas as brilliant people?) refers to the fact that “the same long tail principles in consumer markets apply to citizen interests in public policy” (Eaves in Open Government). Which means, there are citizens who are busy, but care about some or even one public policy issue, and can be leveraged to engage in governance (see this image). Meanwhile, The Extraordinairies is a “micro-volunteering network,” an online platform that enables citizens to volunteer minutes at a time to doing good. Put the two together and you get Clay Shirky’s latest title, Cognitive Surplus, applied to civic engagement (Civic Surplus?). David indeed knows about The Extraordinairies, and is excited about possibilities in data mining for public service. He mentions a tag cloud on GCPEDIA that lists what all government employees are reading at any given moment. I’m not sure how that follows, but I think it’s a Lovely idea and an opportunity to share one of my own: a democratic system for recommending books to the president. What if we could democratically choose one book (or a few) for the President (or other elected officials) to read and follow up with a book report? Anyways.

I ask David to riff on the implications of government 2.0 for Tim O’Reilly’s claim that “government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action.” He begins, “the power of gov 2.0 is that we can do our own thing.” There’s a difference between cooperation and collaboration – the latter requires individuals to work together, whereas the former doesn’t. “When we have to collaborate, we work slowly,” and government as platform is about “enabling people to work individually.” Government as a mechanism for collective action therefore doesn’t, at least necessarily or only, enable individuals to work together, but architects a system that enables them to work individually and still produce public good.

Finally, for those of you hanging on for the Moneyball connection, it’s essentially about open data. What open data did for the baseball industry, namely enable the Oakland A’s to develop different and more accurate metrics for gauging players’ success and therefore build a winning team on a relatively shoestring budget, is a lesson for what it can do for government. But beyond Moneyball, GCPEDIA and long tail policy, I think my favorite lesson from David is the fact that he includes a section on being a citizen in his professional bio. What a beautiful day it will be when we all include our citizenship-ness in our resumes and cover letters.

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