20 February 2023

Democracy Technologies: Your book is on political entrepreneurship and bringing private sector innovation to government. You cover a whole range of topics from new political organisations to collaborative democracy to crowdsourcing. What made you want to bring all of this together? 

Michael Mascioni: Yes. So the book evolved over time and I expanded the range of topics. One of the impetuses of the book was the widespread disenchantment with major parties in countries around the world, such as the U.S.

People feel that these parties are not reflecting their points of view and not really giving them a voice. The book aims at providing a more hopeful look at alternative political parties, platforms and channels. But beyond that, the basic idea of the book was to examine how innovation strategies and tools could be adapted from the private sector to government.

So that includes things like crowdsourcing, gamification, rapid experimentation, agile innovation and looking at how those strategies and innovation models could be applied in government and in politics. And then the other part of the book focuses on the use of exponential technologies like VR and robotics in government. 

DT: Okay. I would like to focus on the aspect of collaborative democracy, as you call it. Where do you see that going or what do you perceive as this trend and where do you see it developing?

Mascioni: Right. So, at the beginning of this idea of crowdsourcing in government, it tended to be focused on gathering data and allowing people to vote on issues at town halls or virtual town halls. In recent years, it’s expanded to include or to encompass citizen suggestions about policies, and projects, and in some cases, using some of that input or adapting some of that input to make policy decisions, especially at the local government level.

And also there’s one aspect of tapping into the knowledge of citizens that have particular interests that relate to government projects; whether it deals with space or energy or other areas. 

Another aspect of crowdsourcing that Bill Eggers mentions, and he considers this the third wave of crowdsourcing, involves data visualisation. It makes the data available to citizens to get a better sense of how government policies work and lets them use that data for their own purposes.

In general, my feeling is that just the whole use of crowdsourcing has expanded considerably in scope in government and also, for that matter, in politics.

DT: Why do you use the terms crowdsourcing and civic hacking for this rather than participation? Is it a question of framing?

Mascioni: Right. Again, there are different terms, collaborative democracy, and collective intelligence. One of the reasons I use the term crowdsourcing is because that’s a term that’s used quite commonly in the business and technology world and citizens are more familiar with the term from their experiences in that context. And that’s part of the whole thrust of the book is to look at how some of those tools and models, you know, are being adopted in government.

But absolutely, the whole essence of it is to increase engagement, to increase engagement between government and citizens and increase citizen engagement in government. So absolutely that’s part of it. And it involves obviously participation at different levels. 

The point that I’m trying to make is that many years ago it tended to be more limited to just voting and, responding to surveys rather than offering suggestions that government would use or use as input or, you know, actually collaborating on policies.

DT: Does it also have to do with a particular focus on the government using the knowledge of the citizen more efficiently, rather than making it more democratic, making it more informed? What do you see as a prime advantage?

Mascioni: Absolutely. That’s another aspect of it. There’s an educational element to it. Informing citizens about government policies and involving them more in those policies. And there’s also kind of the promotional aspect as well in the sense that, you know, collaborating with citizens is another way to, again, promote government policies or campaigns in different areas and attract other citizens to become more involved in collaborating with the government.

DT: I actually meant knowledge transfer the other way around. So the knowledge that the citizens transfer to the government to make more informed decisions.

Mascioni: Both ways. Both ways. Yeah. And I mean, that’s the whole point of tapping into citizen ideas and feedback for government policy. So. Absolutely. And again, that’s been one of the big questions, whether they actually do utilize the input that they get from citizens to formulate policies. So, yes, I mean, it works both ways. But I think that there is a strong educational element for citizens to become more aware and give them more of a voice in government rather than just voting.

Because that’s been the whole problem. To just ask people to vote once every four years or so. That’s very limited involvement. Whereas if you can keep them involved on an ongoing basis in particular projects, especially in policies and projects that interest them, I think that, you know, that’s a great way to increase citizen engagement in government.

DT: One of the things you write about in different contexts is gamification. Why do you find it important or useful for governments to consider gamification, especially in the context of digital participation?

Mascioni: Well, I think it’s important to reach younger voters who’ve grown up with video games. So in the business world, it’s being used to involve consumers with products and brands by creating intriguing game experiences etc. And I think in the government arena, it’s another way to attract people to become more involved by engaging in the activities they consider fun and entertaining.

I think it’s a way to reach people. And also because you’re enticing people to become more involved by offering incentives and rewards, whether they’re financial incentives or things as simple as badges or other kinds of incentives. So, you know, I think it’s been very effective. It was used in COVID to induce people to get vaccinated, for example.

DT: And looking at all of these areas of government innovation that you address together, would you say that there is any common hurdle to moving ahead more quickly?

Mascioni: Well, there’s the usual issue of resistance to change and sluggish bureaucracies that, you know, are unwilling to take chances. But I think that there’s been more of an effort towards overcoming that kind of resistance.  People involved are getting different departments and agencies of government together and also working from a holistic perspective rather than just a narrow perspective. And I think that these innovation efforts have a better chance of succeeding. And for example, the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has taken that approach with projects that it has done, whether it’s energy or transportation.

They’ve gotten better results as a result of getting broader support within the government rather than just trying to go to one agency and also to communicate better and to make government more responsive.

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