The Touchstone of Consensus

Open Politics

Essay |

Watching a consensus-based process at work can be quite inspiring. From the outside I mean. Far from the madding crowd of bicker and squabble. And in fast-forward montage. But inspiring it is. More importantly, as is often claimed of Wikipedia, while it may very well work in practice, it can never work in theory. This doesn't keep some of us from theorising about it anyway.

With a few friends we've been mulling over ways of translating that process to the production of policy. It's not trivial or magical, but we have some ideas and we might even have a prototype to show this year. As part of this process, Dom made a very good suggestion: to read Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration, which I heartily recommend. Based on that, we've found a clearer formulation to a problem we've been having.

Most communities that thrive around a more or less coherent end product seem to require some form of "reality feedback loop" in order to maintain and foster consensus around the project. Open content like Wikipedia has verifiable sources, neutral point of view, etc.. Open source and open standards, have running code. Projects in these domains that don't have this feedback loop peter out in a burst of spit followed by sulking. Or they sail into the big blue skies, following grand designs that are almost incredibly successful but simply fail to see the light of day (readers of Douglas Adams will know what I mean; people who haven't read Douglas Adams should stop reading this blog immediately and go read Douglas Adams instead). Either way, the fact is that they fail.

The question is, trying to transpose this to the world of policy, say as part of one of the many "open policy" projects sprouting up that seem to be heading nowhere fast, what could constitute a sustainable and sufficiently fast reality-based feedback loop? Most policies require some major deployment of resources, can take a lot of time to unfold, and their precise impact is often muddled in piles of interferent econometrics. This makes actual deployment unlikely as a (primary) feedback source. As a result, lacking this touchstone, it would seem that open policy projects are doomed to ideological partisanship, which in turn likely squanders potential for wider, productive consensus.

So, any thoughts, dear reader? I'm not looking for the magical recipe for delicious policy cookies, but it does seem like this is precisely the sort of problem where it appears in hindsight that a small adjustment to social interactions supported by technology can open up a whole new world.