A short column in the Age published today
Reduce the bugbears with some beta-tested policies
THERE’S a saying made famous by Eric S. Raymond, the author of the landmark book on Web 2.0, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In computer geek speak, it’s this: “given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterised quickly and the fix will be obvious to someone”.
Raymond went on to put it more memorably as Linus’ Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.
As it is putting what it hopes are the finishing touches to its next stimulus package, the Government would do well to remember Linus’ Law.
Governments make extensive use of public consultative methods in arriving at policies precisely to “bug-fix” them politically and technically and otherwise optimise policy outcomes. But they also think of them as cumbersome. Traditionally, they have been.
A government inquiry takes three months at the very least and, at the other end of the spectrum, the Henry review is taking more than 18 months.
But this is the 21st century, the age of Web 2.0, where it’s never been easier to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. What we need is a bit of “turbo crowd-sourcing”. The Government could start the whole thing by taking the package it is finalising and penciling the word “draft” into its title. It would then release the package, explaining the ideas behind it and leave it on the table for a brief period say two weeks with some website/blog dedicated to receiving public responses and thrashing through the issues. The policy would be optimised and finalised over that period, in response to feedback from all comers.
Of course the political process does this to some extent. But it typically does so in an atmosphere of maximum hysteria. Had the Government released the package of bank guarantees it introduced late last year as a draft and opened it up for a brief burst of feedback, some of the bugs might well have been fixed before it committed itself. Note that the bugs were not found and fixed by the political process, because those who ultimately criticised the package only did so after endorsing it in Parliament.
And, of course, who’s to say the improvements would be limited to bug-fixing. Our senior bureaucrats are some of the best in the world. But there are plenty of good ideas and constructive criticism the Government could profitably pick up from a sufficiently open process.
Of course the simple political explanation for why this doesn’t happen now is that governments like projecting an image of mastery. But if the Government straightforwardly conceded that we are all having to think our way through this crisis on our feet, if it said simply “we’re leading this process, but we need your help”, I can’t see it going over too badly can you?
As economist Henry Ergas memorably put it in an emailed response to this proposal yesterday, “I especially agree with your point on putting out proposals and having a genuine discussion: this would, in my view, be an enormous step forward. Fact is, we are all in a play with no script and no dress rehearsals, and it is stupid to pretend otherwise.”