The interactive society: an ‘open source’ suggestion box for government


I was driving through the Burnley tunnel today. It has three lanes. As you go into it travelling east, the three lanes I was on had to become two to make way for another lane entering from the left. Normally what happens in such a situation is that the three main lanes become two and to remove the scope for ambiguity, the space previously taken up by the left most lane (before the new lane enters) becomes a traffic isle. The third lane then feeds in from the left.

It’s all pretty fail safe. You can’t end up in the wrong (terminating) lane unless you don’t notice the fact that you’ve driven onto a traffic island â which is itself preceded by lots of white lines and things that would have you wondering if something was going wrong.

But in this case (I presume because this lane was doubling as an emergency lane until cars entered it from the new ramp), no such arrangement had been made here. I found it quite confusing and ended up in the emergency lane for a while before realising what was intended and making my exit into the two correct lanes to allow cars to enter into the lane I had vacated.

Given my confusion I thought that someone ought to do something about it. But I know government well enough not to bother. I’d be asked to put the thing in writing – as sure a sign as any that someone isn’t regarding your input as a potentially valuable resource. Then my communication would go into a queue and I’d receive a polite letter.

Is there a better way? Well here’s a fantasy. I get home and e-mail a ‘government suggestion box’ mentioning the problem – and if I can think of one a solution. (I have one – which is that for the length during which the status of the lane becomes unclear there be at the very least striped white lines on the emergency lane and perhaps the writing ’emergency lane’ to explain to drivers what’s going on. It’s part of my brave new world that, wherever possible explanations for why things are being done are offered. That way people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. This has two great benefits. I expect it helps them learn what they should do and to remember it. And it also helps them respond if they have some objection to what is being done and/or if they have some improvement.)

At this point in my little Utopian reverie some people will say that we more or less have this – at least as far as it can be practically implemented. I have my member of parliament and the Department of Transport to both of whom I can write (or perhaps ring) and both of whom have some duty to consider what I’ve said to them and even to write back. The fact that the chances of anything happening are slim is because the world isn’t perfect.

One might also add that encouraging feedback of this kind from every Tom, Nick and Harry will generate far too much low quality feedback – so it’s not cost effective to encourage feedback. Thus the current filtering mechanisms. Your suggestion doesn’t go anywhere unless you can get an MP, a department of state or an industry association or just a stray billionaire to adopt your proposal (all pretty unlikely in the case of the white lines on the Burnley Tunnel.)

I think the problem is indeed in this interface between existing institutions and the ‘coal face’. And we’ve learned that changing it can be an immense engine of improvement in the most surprising ways. We’ve learned this from the explosion of ‘open source’ approaches in the last decade.

It seems to me there could be an ‘open source’ community vetting suggestions of the kind I made above and forwarding those to government that it thinks are clearly worthy. The kind of suggestion I have in mind would be a commonsensical suggestion rather than politically contentious proposals (upon which most energy is spent in many cases â both in Parliament and in the community.) Politically divisive disputes over policy are so much more entertaining.

It seems to me that salaried workers everywhere have real problems interfacing with this massive new resource of intelligence, collaboration and production. The ABC is an excellent organisation at least compared with its peers. (I guess I’m thinking of the stuff I consume most myself – Radio National). It’s also done better than any other public broadcaster that I know to embrace the net – releasing more of its content on line and as podcasts than other public broadcasters with grander policy statements on the matter â like the BBC.

But why (oh why?) doesn’t the ABC try to assist in the seeding of citizen journalism? Why for instance doesn’t it run a citizen journalism hour each week â enabling journalism students and any old busybody such as me and you gentle reader to submit content. Why doesn’t it take small steps like publishing separate of forthcoming programs a few weeks out to allow people to propose ‘talent’ and content that they’ve not thought of.

Why don’t departments run blogs – and open forums. Yes, some moderation would be involved.

Well it’s easy to see lots of reasons why departments won’t embrace open source access to the policy process. Departments need control not just because they’re full of control freaks (and supervised by political masters who are control freaks). But all these actors are forced to be control freaks by the immaturity and sensationalism of our media.

But that shouldn’t stop open source initiatives being run from outside government then presenting government with the results of their endeavours. The example I’ve provided is a very specific matter relating to a particular part of a road. But what of all the badly drafted sections of statutes and regulations? Mightn’t an open source policy community be an excellent source of ‘bug fixes’ for regulation and other aspects of government?

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