Economics of Participatory Government: The Coming (temporary) Scarcity

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Government and citizens

I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a sensational headline. But if I put the word “equilibrium” in there, you might not have reached this point.

Last year while presenting at a technology and disabilities conference, I answered a question about participatory government, gov 2.0, so on, in a way that reverberated in tones of heresy on the faces of some people.

I said something to the effect of: “There are people who don’t want to participate. We have a representative democracy and people paid to run things, and in many cases I want them to do their jobs and let me do mine.”

Before you comment, the answer was meant to be illustrative—reminding listeners not to take eager participants for granted and to steer clear of assuming we can open source, crowdsource, and involve citizens to no end.

It’s been in the back of my head for a while, and after repeatedly hearing trendy terms like cognitive surplus and civic surplus, with a decidedly economic bent, I’d like extend that reasoning to see where it takes us.

It goes like this. Until robots learn to reproduce, human effort is a limiting input for the production of stuff. If we want to produce more stuff, assuming other resources aren’t scarce, we have two options: make more humans or develop technology to help us to do more.

Clay Shirky hit on the technology component in his book Cognitive Surplus. He describes several accounts of what people can do now that they have the internet in addition to television. Jonah Lehrer reviews the premise:

“Shirky describes this shift in media consumption as a net ‘cognitive surplus,’ since our brain is no longer mesmerized by the boob tube. ...And when this new pool of free time is combined with the internet—a tool that enables strangers all across the world to connect with each other—the end result is a potentially vast new source of productivity.”

Shirky talked about this in more general terms, not necessarily focusing this resource surplus on participation in government. But, it didn’t take long for people to adapt the term to civic surplus. Of course, the production of “stuff” we’re talking about here is governance, services, and community.

As the connective technology becomes better and the models turn tempting for risk-averse governments, more public institutions are going to employ participatory methods. Not just the federal government, but widespread in state governments, agencies, councils, committees, and individual officials. Add to that every non-governmental organization and interest group, all asking for commitments of time.

Where previously bound to already lowly subscribed or detested opportunities for participation like voting and jury duty, now there’s no reason we shouldn’t be contributing in all sorts of ways as empowered open-source-like participants 24/7, right?

The problem is, although lack of technology does constrain our opportunity for participation, removing that wall only takes us so far. Each one of us only has so much time we can dedicate and a willingness to use it for certain tasks—our own participation budget. Every day we wake up and decide where to invest our time, always with an opportunity cost, something else we could be doing.

The demand will grow from where we are today, but the supply won’t really change. At some point, our personal calculation of where to invest time will be more strategic and those entreating our participation are going to face stiffer competition. We’ll get innovation, and participants will be more valued, but one day it will all flat line.

I gave two options for how to make more of something, but in this case, there’s a third way to push that production possibilities frontier outward: change our behavior. Specifically, allocate our time differently.

Let’s take a look at how it worked previously.

There’s a common economic shorthand called SLOTH to understand how people allocate time. It stands for Sleep, Leisure, Occupation, Transportation, and Home activities. You could call the last one maintenance, instead, like haircuts, oil changes, etc. The thinking is, if we’re breathing, whatever we’re doing fits into one of these categories.

Models can be helpful, but also restrict your thinking. In the case of open source, for example, it threw economists for a loop. Why would people spend so much time doing occupation-like activities? They had the wrong microscope.

The coding and collaboration more appropriately fell in the leisure category. And for some, it’s so compelling that when paired with diet coke it supplants the sleep category. 

This is all pretty well understood now and popularized through books like Daniel Pink’s Drive. We engage where there’s challenge and autonomy, regardless if the domain looks traditionally like work to some.

But, I don’t subscribe to the view that civic surplus is all potential and just waiting to find a way out.

Clearly some people were always wanting to participate and the Internet just helped show the way, but for others it takes the taste of it, and reorientation in thinking, how to be and work open source, that it’s not “work” in the SLOTH sense. Businesses didn’t get it right away, and most still don’t get that you can build viable models around how people are willing to use their time differently. 

Looking at open source’s history, although defined as a success, it’s taken quite a while, and every day there’s still convincing and eye opening to do. Through community groups, mailing lists, events, sites like, the notion of open source behavior and the expectations for allocation of time is still changing for individual people.

The technology may be there, and our default condition of “drive” may be there, but when it comes to civic surplus and participatory government, we need to actually figure out what new government looks like, how it works, and have some intentionality about giving control to citizens. Or, provide for the experimentation to allow others to organically find the new models.

We haven’t yet encountered that mind reset needed to really make these tools work for participatory government, and until we do, we’re just heading for a wall that doesn’t have to be there.

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Art is the Research Manager for New Kind where he focuses on research and analysis for new methods of community engagement and participation. He's also a Government Fellow at the Center for Advanced Communications Policy at Georgia Tech and the Center for Innovation in Local Government.

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