Michael Gurstein on Thu, 27 May 1999 10:19:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> From a "A Cathedral" of Public Policy to a Public Policy "Bazaar"

(This is a draft of a paper that I'm developing that might be of interest
in this context.  Contents, criticisms, "hacking" is welcomed.
Distribution (with attribution) is encouraged.)

I'm struck by the convergence that I see in meetings/conferences and
on-line discussions around the issue of the linkage between a concerned
and informed public and those with the responsibility for the formulation
and execution of public policies.

What seems to be emerging is a major discontinuity between the
expectations and experiences of an Internet "bazaar" i.e. an "open
(information) source" enabled "concerned public", and the representatives
of the public sector who are attempting to proceed within a more
traditional "Cathedral" approach to policy formulation, consultation, and

This discontinuity takes the form on the one hand of:
 Public consultation processes which consist of the public being invited
to send comments on pre-circulated documents to a public Internet forum
with no indication of how (or even) whether the comments will be
read/responded to /used/integrated and so on.

 The development by the range of Government Departments of elaborate and
sophisticated Internet delivered web-sites with little or no interactive
component and no indications of how the degree of interactivity which is
allowed will be assimilated or used.

 The development of elaborate internal (within government) policy
Intranets, with formal mechanisms for scanning and assimilating public
comment and the broad range of Internet enabled communication but with no
interactive linkages (or participation) into any of the forums or on-line
policy discussions from which they are drawing sustenance.

 E-mail addresses included in Government sponsored websites which are
either completely unresponsive or which have only a form letter response
often by means of a "bot".

 Publicly supported networks of researchers in a variety of areas of
public policy interest as for example "Innovation Systems" and "Regional
Development", all evidently developed and funded with a concern by policy
makers to have access to the best research and thinking on these issue
areas but with no formal linkage or responsibility concerning public
policy discussion or evaluation in these sectoral areas and little or no
public contribution to the discussion.

 Policy processes as for example, those concerning areas such as "Smart
Communities", "The Canada Health Infoway", and "The Knowledge Based
Economy" which are almost completely non-transparent to the broader
concerned public and which operate by means of closed groups of "experts"
consulting at the discretion of the policy apparatus and with little
accountability or even non-formal communication with the broader concerned
communities of interest.

On the other hand:
 The development of on-line public forums including web-boards, e-lists,
and chat facilities discussing the broad range of public policy issues

 The participation by many with a very broad range of expert and
experience based knowledge and understanding of areas of policy concern,
in many cases with considerable expenditures of time and effort in
researching and formulating positions and comments often of very high

 A deepening frustration at the lack of participation, consultation and
real engagement on the part of those concerned with public policy either
as politicians or as public servants in this dialogue.

 The development by researchers of publicly funded research networks in
areas of considerable public interest concern but with no formal linkages
into policy making processes.

Where in the current practise of democratic governance is there the degree
 multi-nodality and
 network interoperability
which leading organizations are increasingly developing with their leading
client/supplier/stakeholder groups?  While these may be developing in
certain parts of government internal communication and in its interactions
with certain private sector "stakeholders", little if any of this is
emerging as part of government's relationship with it's ultimate
"stakeholder", the democratic citizenry.

What is of particular interest in the above is how little assimilation
there appears to have been into the policy process in Canada of the
opportunities for broader interaction and consultation with the interested
Canadian public which the Internet interactivity has made possible.  Nor
has there been any significant attempt to broaden the base of the
interested Canadian public in these processes again by means of the new

While the policy process takes advantage of the technology to support it's
internal operations and development, there appears to have been little
effort to utilize the technology to support an extension of the process to
include broader involvement and participation by concerned citizens.  The
process thus functions more as a "Cathedral" with centralized development,
hierarchical management and clear boundaries than it does as a
bazaar/network with open boundaries, multiple independent contributors,
and distributed development and management.

I think that it is inevitable that these artificial and scarcity (of the
means of communication) derived barriers between the governors and the
governed (the Cathedral based clergy and the laity) will break down and
very likely sooner rather than later.  The modern world and the broad
environmental context for policy making is too complex to be "managed" by
those responsible without having access to the most encompassing range of
expertise and experience available to it..  The alternative, which is the
reliance on hired expertise through consultants and researchers and paid
informants (lobbyists) is too restrictive and assumes as all Cathedral
dwellers must, that within the Cathedral resides the full sum of useful

Additionally, the breakdown of trust and mutual commitment which is
resulting from this discontinuity between the governors and the governed
is eroding the commitment to and the efficacy of public institutions in
all jurisdictions.  Moreover, as we all know, Cathedrals in these days are
empty of parishioners as the monopoly on knowledge and truth has so
evidently broken down and truth (and credibility) is more likely to be
found in the anarchy of the bazaar than in the sanctity of the altar.

The "Open Source" paradigm may prove to be a useful one for policy making
in a democratic society and certainly more useful than the
"command/hierarchical" (Cathedral) model which is it's alternative.  An
"Open Source" policy model would be one where the "kernel" or core
question was publicly distributed and made available for multiple
contributions toward a solution.  The objective of the policy process
would be first to articulate and then to manage an on-going consensus
around the "kernel" of shared common values out of which a policy response
would be derived.

As with the "Open Source" paradigm the policy output would be subject to
rapid prototyping and debugging as solutions to the policy issue around
the value "kernel" were proposed, commented upon and revised/elaborated in
public forums including not only public participants but also those with
broader program and implementation responsibility.  The accountability for
the policy outcomes would still rest with those responsible but the
broader public would share responsibility since they had had the
opportunity for free participation and consultation within a context of
legitimate and legitimized open discussion.  The key to the effectiveness
and legitimacy (in the public's mind) of the process would be the
interactivity and porousity of the linkages between the formal process and
the public process to the extent that the boundaries between the two
became at least for a time indistinct.  Accountability within the policy
process thus would no longer be purely internal and bureaucratic but also
external and public.

The role of the political process is to be the guardian and the
affirmer/reaffirmer of the kernel/values and where necessary, the creation
of alternative kernels around competing values with these being networks
in waitingsubject to the outcomes of future elections for their shift from
the role of demonstrations to the position of program implementers.

As the use of Internet resources for informal discourse on public policy
is becoming increasingly sophisticated those so empowered also are
becoming impatient at their inability to engage with the formal policy
process. The formal policy process meanwhile is being forced to establish
ever more rigid and irrational barriers to a broader public engagement as
it's information permeability increases with Internet enabled
communication and with government's unwillingness to move beyond it's role
as sponsor/patron/consumer of advice but not contributor/co-investigator.

The problem may be in fact, generational rather than structural.  Public
servants engage in public discussion of policy even in speculative mode at
their peril.  Politicians and particularly Cabinet Members are very
jealous of their prerogatives in this area and most were formed and have
lived their political lives in the hot house atmosphere of Parliament,
safely insulated from the babble of the Internet bazaar.  One need only
reflect that most of the current crop of politicians in Canada were
elected some three years ago in 1996 at the very beginning of the web's
dramatic rise to significance and most entered full-time politics at least
some seven years ago which would place their detachment from the ebbs and
flows of daily family and community life in the early 1990's with senior
politicians/Cabinet members being of an even earlier generation.
Recognizing that computer generations last some 18 months at most, this
would put most of their direct experience up to 5 generations out of date!
No wonder that the form of the discussion and not infrequently the content
emanating from official political Ottawa seems so remarkably "pre-modern".

The creativity and even inevitability of the Internet-enabled policy
bazaar presents both risks and opportunities.  Risks to effective
management and democratic accountability, and opportunities for a new form
and quality of citizenship reflecting a real and effective engagement in
the substance of governance and not simply with its form.  To realize the
opportunities and to minimize the risks there is a need to develop new and
Internet savvy methods for public management and democratic governance.

This task is a formidable but a necessary one and should be engaged in
sooner rather than later as the current discontinuities are eroding the
credibility of governments world-wide and increasingly government's
capacity to undertake its assigned responsibilities in the most effective
and efficient means currently available.

Mike Gurstein 

Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
ECBC/NSERC/SSHRC Associate Chair Management of Technological Change
Director:  Centre for Community and Enterprise Networking (C\CEN)
University College of Cape Breton, POBox 5300, Sydney, NS, CANADA B1P 6L2
Tel.  902-563-1369 (o)          902-562-1055 (h)        902-562-0119 (fax)
mgurst@ccen.uccb.ns.ca      http://ccen.uccb.ns.ca         ICQ: 7388855


This paper is based on a re-reading and re-application of the seminal
paper by Eric Raymond
and an attempt (sometimes fruitful but always dangerous) to transpose a
model developed in one sphere to a radically different domain.

For additional readings on the "open source" model

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