Here’s an interesting article in Democracy Magazine (put out by the Roosevelt Institute, a US-based student think-tank) that discusses possible applications of the network effect in the world of public policy. [For a quick background on some of this stuff, see my earlier post titled “the Power of Networks: a Primer.”]
In a representative democracy, we entrust elected and appointed officials to make informed decisions on our behalf. Of course, the system is imperfect and other than the occasional “town-hall” meeting, opportunities for real public consultation are few and far between.
Thus, applying the collaborative power of networks to public policy is an intriguing prospect. At its essence, the Internet’s strengths lie in its ability to decrease information asymmetries and connect disparate people together by giving them a platform to collaborate. Thus, the Internet and public policy are intuitive bedfellows- technology can strengthen public institutions, by lowering the cost of access to both specialized knowledge and public opinion. The article describes a great example of this type of project:
On June 15, 2007, the USPTO [United States Patent Office- a public institution] launched an experiment, the “Peer-to-Patent: Community Patent Review,” which could become a model for precisely this sort of collaborative governance. The program solicits public participation in the patent examination process via the Web. This system (the design and implementation of which I direct in cooperation with the USPTO) allows the public to research and upload publications–known in patent law as “prior art”–that will inform the patent examiner about the novelty and obviousness of the invention and enable her to decide whether it deserves a patent. This is truly revolutionary: In the 200 years since Thomas Jefferson founded the patent office, there has been no direct communication between the patent examiner and the public.
How can patent officers be expected to judge the merit of applications on topics that they know nothing about? This project allows patent officers access to the public’s wealth of specialized information. Results show significant progress in reducing the back-log in patent offices.
I think there is exciting potential for these types of projects to improve public institutions. What better way to strengthen our democracy, than by applying the very democratizer of information itself.