Smart Citizens for a Smart State?

Beth Simone Novak is a woman on a mission – to use technology to transform government. It is a task she realises is herculean, as she told the audience at the RSA on Thursday.

She illustrated the potential by highlighting a couple of successful apps – PulsePoint  and GoodSam. The first is an app which launched in California which puts people who know CPR together with those who are having a heart attack. The second, the equivalent in the UK, alerts off-duty medics to emergencies in their vicinity. Both aim to use technology to tap a need which cannot currently be met well enough by the State. Novak says 7,000 lives have been saved so far by PulsePoint alone.

The key question for Governments, she says, is : “How do we take this know-how and make it work to improve government?”

The UK and US have done well with open data, she says and Government is generally getting much better at asking people – take the government petition initiatives in both countries for example. “But we need to go beyond this and ask what we know as citizens and what we can do.”

One way of mobilising this know-how is through prizes and challenges. For example the platform in the US offers prizes for solving hard problems.

But, she says, “here’s where we’re stuck – it’s only happening at the edges. Open challenges don’t get the word out.”

One of the key problems is that “Government not used to saying ‘I don’t know’,” she says. Governments tend to view asking questions as embarrassing and the modern press in both the UK and the US doesn’t help. We need to move from “crowdsourcing widely to crowdsourcing wisely”, she argues.

What we need to do is target the right people. We need a science of people analytics. We need ‘Tindr for Government’

There are various attempts to get engagement in the wider population and to surface know-how in a meaningful way. The World Bank, for example, developed Skill Finder, and app to bring out the embedded knowledge in the organisation. They also added a help desk, recognising that one of the biggest challenges is getting the platform widely used. Spanish political party Podemos recently launched Talent Bank to do the same thing.

The key, says Novak, is to “re-envision the government’s role as broker”. We need new systems of credentials, such as the “badging” system, and we need to run more experiments.

Stackexchange, the knowledge exchange for software programmers is a good example of how it could work, she says.

The goal in the end is to build stronger, smarter state.

Beth Simone Noveck is the Jerry Hultin Global Network Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and director of the Governance Lab. She was the United States deputy chief technology officer for open government and led President Obama‘s Open Government Initiative.