What if politicians innovated the open source way?

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In the discussions around some of my previous articles, I've noticed a trend: we seem to be focusing on cultural changes that need to be made for the open source way to be effective in contexts beyond technology. One cultural context I think could really use some help is politics.

I read an interesting post last week by Morton Hansen (author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results) entitled Obama's Five Collaboration Mistakes. In the comments below the post, some folks interpreted his words as an attack on the Obama administration. Me? I'd probably interpret Hansen's words more broadly. Perhaps something like:

Politicians are pretty darned bad at collaborating a lot of the time.

I think many folks would agree with this statement no matter where they sit politically. No matter where they live around the world.

In fact, the word "political" has become almost synonymous with anti-collaborative behavior in many contexts. Certainly in the business world.

But there is a lot a stake here. The economic downturn has hurt our businesses badly. And this has affected many of us in even more personal ways. Jobs. Homes. Security.

We need innovation in the political world to help solve the problems of the business world. Which means we are going to need better collaboration across political boundaries, both inside and between our countries.

Could we open source folks help?

A few thoughts from me:

1) It seems like most successful open source projects are guided by a shared vision that contributors passionately believe in—sometimes expressed, sometimes implied. How exactly do open source projects reach shared vision? Do our politicians have a shared vision? Do they have shared values that could serve as a starting point?

2) Collaboration isn't always great in the open source world either. When an open source project goes sideways because of poor collaboration, how do we get it back on the right track?

3) How can a meritocracy where (in theory) the best ideas win thrive within a democracy where (in theory) the will of the people wins? What would the world look like if politicians innovated the open source way?

My political context is the United States, but I'd love to hear your thoughts whether you live in the U.S. or anywhere else around the world.



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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)tidelift.com


Maybe I'm Captain Obvious here, but I'd like to see more and better polls on my elected officials' Web sites. Too often the messages I get from my representative say, "I firmly support X and oppose Y," and if I write to him with a different opinion, he just writes back and says what he thinks. There is no dialogue, no opportunity for either of us to change the other's mind or to get more people involved.

Here's what I'd rather see instead: in his email, he says, "I firmly oppose Y. To find out why, visit this page." On that page, he (with help from his staff) lays out his reasons for opposing Y. At the bottom of the page are threaded comments where constituents can discuss. And then there's a poll where we say whether we support or oppose Y. There would need to be a verification system where we prove that we're constituents; maybe his office would send passwords to voters in his district. But the point is that if the vote is going strongly the other way from his policy, he (with help from his staff) could read through the comments and either change his policy or explain why not.

That's what I'd do if I were running for office... thank God I'm not! :-)

Check out what Australian Senator Kate Lundy is doing with her Open Government efforts (particularly her Public Sphere consultations, thus far mostly about technology related issues), strongly influenced by her new senior advisor, local FLOSS luminary Pia Waugh.

Pia has been telling other politicians and bureaucrats that if they want to kick butt at "open government" and "online engagement" they should hire an Open Source geek -- just like Senator Lundy has!

Senator Lundy's website: http://www.katelundy.com.au/

(Disclosure: I'm Pia's partner.)

Another quick point: One angle which deserves a lot of thought -- particularly when considering the influence of Open Source process, meritocracy and transparency -- is the crucial difference between "governance" and "politics".

I just want to require that all bills be put under version control, a public Subversion repository, with only elected representatives having commit priviledges. A little attribution would go a long way these days.

That and a cap on the total number of words that may be used in the entire corpus of law.

now that is a brilliant idea!

Josh Tauberer at http://govtrack.us has done just that. Here's H.R. 3200, "America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009". Note the "Compare to this version" pulldown on the left.


govtrack.us is a tremendous resource that periodically scrapes THOMAS and makes it... well, useful.

One of your questions implies tension between meritocracy and democracy, but I don't think there is any.

First of all, no democracy, least of all one as big as, say, the USA, actually operates on the principle that every single person's one individual ideas get an equal hearing and consideration. It's just not practical. Rather, we have to talk about the supporting mechanisms that choose who gets heard. The notion in the US Constitution is that relatively small groups elect a spokesman. What we find today, to an uncomfortably large extent, is that a manageable number of spokesmen (like 100 Senators or 500 Representatives) makes the "groups" who elect them unmanageably large: the choice is made based on sound bites, ad impressions, and other shallow engagements.

This is where meritocracy is strongly at odds, not with democracy but with electioneering. In an open-source meritocracy, you actually have to pass two simultaneous barriers to be heard:
- You have to have some convincingly good ideas (better yet, code)
- You have to be able to convince other people this is so (you have to collaborate)

We expect "merit" in both coding skills and collaboration skills.

So, a meritocratic selection of spokesmen would require--in advance of getting the job, mind you, as well as once installed in office--proofs of both "good ideas" and "ability to collaborate."

I've been mulling over the collaborative process a lot lately. If an individual stands to profit significantly from NOT collaborating, they're probably more likely not to work with others. Take video games, for instance. If I was an extremely skilled person who could write the music, draw all the artwork, write the story, and do all the programming, why would I ever collaborate to make a video game? I would profit more by working by myself, regardless of whether or not someone could add value or fresh ideas to the project. Unfortunately, the current political system seems to reward politicians too much by giving them power, influence, fame, and (in some cases) money. Thus many politicians' main goal while in office is to stay in office after the next election.

I guess I'm also trying to say that politeness, humility, and honesty go a long, long way in a collaborative community. With humility, I admit that my ideas are not always perfect, or, at the very least, that I could benefit from others' ideas. With honesty, I'm honest with myself about ways in which I'm wrong and ways in which I'm right. With politeness, I respectfully submit my ideas and listen to the ideas of others.

I know this probably sounds a bit like I'm talking to five-year-olds. But I think we'd admit that political meetings---whether it be congressional meetings or town hall meetings---get out of control WAY too often. Individuals are concerned more with advancing their party's or their own agendas than with hearing good ideas (because they're too conceited and too dishonest with themselves to admit reason).

I have a hard time seeing how collaboration is possible where politeness, humility, and honesty do not exist. I know we don't like considering the possibility that "moral" issues affect open source communities, but it seems to me that they do, and certainly politics illustrate this to us on an almost daily basis.

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