Collaborative Democracy on the Move


Kevin R. Kosar is a contributing editor at Public Administration Review. His writings may be found at

Beth Simone Noveck , Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful ( Washington, DC : Brookings Institution Press , 2009 ). xxii, 224 pp. $28.95 (cloth) , ISBN: 9780815702757 .

This book grew out of an article written for a political magazine (Noveck 2008), and it reads like it. It is a short book, and the writing is breezy and impassioned. At heart, it is a case study, one that is used to develop more general arguments about self-governance and public administration in the United States. The case study focuses on a technological experiment to improve an agency’s performance. It is perhaps partially successful, as the agency in question continues to struggle. And the book’s more general arguments for “collaborative democracy” are overstated and appear to be based more on hope than a hard assessment of reality.

Nevertheless, I believe that Beth Noveck’s Wiki Government ranks among the most important books in public administration written in the past decade. I say this for the simple reason that the transformation in government that Noveck ballyhoos has already begun. We are at a precipitous, but very uncertain moment in public administration history. In 20 years, we may look back and see today as the beginning of a new era. Or, we might see the period as one of modest evolution. Either way, times are changing, and public administrators, especially practitioners, who do not read this book (or at least Noveck’s article) run the risk of becoming dinosaurs.

Noveck’s article, also titled “Wiki Government,” appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Democracy, a neoprogressive journal. A professor at New York Law School since 2002, Noveck had been building expertise in intellectual property, technology, and constitutional law. For the better part of a decade, she had been writing about geeky developments in telecommunications (e.g., Noveck 1999a) and pondering the big-picture implications of the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web (e.g., Noveck 1999b).

Here, she went into full-blown advocacy mode. “Non-governmental participants have something more to offer than voting once per year—namely, good information. … If we can harness the enthusiasm and knowledge of ‘netizens’ to the legal and political processes … we can produce government decision making that is both more expert and, at the same time, more democratic” (Noveck 2008, 34). Brookings published her book in June 2009, just one month after she was appointed as the federal government’s deputy chief technology officer for open government in the Office of Science and Technology. Her job? Helping lead President Barack Obama’s Open Government Initiative, which aims to make the federal government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative (Obama 2009).

So, what is it that Noveck wants to change about American self-governance? A bit of its very nature.

This is the core idea of Wiki Government; namely, that legitimate democracy and effective governance in the twenty-first century require collaboration. In an early technological age, this country organized power in representative structures with professional decisionmakers. Because of the high costs of coordination, the public participated in governance only once a year, at the polling booth, to choose its representatives. Citizens would remind those representatives of their obligations by means of indirect pressure from the press, lobbyists, and interest groups. … But in an era when information and communications technology makes it possible for many more people to work together, we can redesign our institutions and create more diverse mechanisms for solving problems. (xiv)

Although one may hear echoes of The Social Contract (Rousseau 1762), Noveck is not advocating radical democracy. She tacitly accepts the messiness of our system of governance, with its separation of powers, myriad governmental and quasi-governmental entities, and mishmash of elected representatives, appointees, and civil servants.

Further opening government to more participants is not something we should do simply because we can, or because it is consanguine with radical and libertarian ideologies. No, Noveck contends that using technology to open government is worth doing because it will make government work better. As Noveck sees it, government is inherently flawed.

[G]overnment institutions create single points of failure by concentrating decisionmaking power in the hands of the few, whether legislators in Congress, cabinet officials in the executive branch, or bureaucrats in agencies. Administrative practices are constructed around the belief that government professionals know best how to translate broad legislative mandates into specific regulatory decisions in the public interest. Governance, the theory goes, is best entrusted to a bureaucracy operating at one remove from the pressure of electoral politics and the biased influence of the public at large. (25)

Yes, she acknowledges, citizens may write their representatives and respond to agency requests for public comment. Nevertheless, the government’s current way of doing business remains a “closed model of decisionmaking” (25). It saddles a few governmental decision makers who have limited knowledge and time with the responsibility for rendering decisions on fantastically complex matters.

This model was inevitable for most of our nation’s history. Now, thanks to the Internet and widespread cheap public access thereto, the government may more easily access the public’s knowledge and creativity. The objective, Noveck explains, is not to replace the elites with the masses. The elites will remain, but their limited knowledge and creativity will be augmented through public input. This is “collaborative democracy,” a more open evolution of America’s current “deliberative democracy.”

Noveck illustrates her argument through a case study of Peer-to-Patent, an experiment at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO is a two-centuries-old government agency that is, as its name implies, “responsible for the granting and issuing of patents and the registration of trademarks” (35 U.S.C. 2[a][1]). The agency has 5,500 patent examiners, who study applications for patents to discern whether they are useful, novel, and nonobvious, and therefore deserving of a 20-year monopoly.

The patent examiner’s job is intellectually challenging, especially insofar as he or she must figure out whether an invention is novel. Take, for example, this 2007 request for a patent for “register tracking for speculative prefetching.” The abstract states that this invention is “an apparatus and method for prefetching based on register tracking … In one embodiment, a register tracker and a pre-computation engine. The register tracker is to generate a pre-computation slice. The pre-computation engine is to execute the pre-computation slice.” With more than 400,000 patent application submissions each year, it is unsurprising that the USPTO has a massive backlog. As Noveck puts it, “Examiners have reason to be unhappy. They have the increasingly difficult job of making legally enforceable decisions in the public interest without the benefit of time and adequate informational resources” (48–49).

In order to speed up the process and improve results, Noveck worked with the USPTO to set up the Peer-to-Patent Web site ( Here, patent applications are posted and members of the public may assist patent examiners by providing useful evidence to them, and by sharing their own expertise on the subject matter. Thus, for example, when Hewlett-Packard submitted a patent application for a “user-selectable, management alert format,” four engineers, 13 tech-savvy persons, five attorneys, and others with relevant knowledge helped review it. One participant submitted a copy of an old Intel corporation manual that detailed similar technology, a submission that cast doubt on the novelty of the Hewlett-Packard invention.

Readers of this review who are familiar with “talk back” forums on Web sites may cringe at the thought of opening a heady government deliberation to the public. Even newspapers with reputations for the most intelligent readership (e.g., the New York Times) frequently have fantastically stupid and mean-spirited reader comments posted in their forums. Noveck helpfully shows that the quality of online public input is largely the product of the structure of the forum. Web sites on which there are no moderators and anyone can post anything anonymously tend to be intellectual cesspools. Peer-to-Patent, on the other hand, requires individuals to sign in, and it limits the actions that individuals may take to those that are likely to be helpful to the examiner. The Web site has a code of conduct, and users may flag inappropriate behavior. Participants who do good work are recognized for their contributions.

Critically, it is important to understand that Peer-to-Patent has not turned the patent approval process into American Idol. The public may submit evidence and discuss an application, but they cannot vote upon it. As always, the USPTO’s examiners decide whether to approve or reject an application. This, Noveck writes, is collaborative democracy at work.

At the time of writing this review, the USPTO and New York Law School were assessing the efficacy of Peer-to-Patent. Their forthcoming study should be interesting. Already there is some evidence that the Web site did prove useful to some examiners.

However, as a case study, Peer-to-Patent is perhaps a half success. In two years, a little over 2,700 individuals logged into the Peer-to-Patent Web site—scarcely enough to make a dent in the massive backlog of applications. Some of the applications posted drew scant input. Finally, operating Peer-to-Patent required additional staffing, a luxury that few agencies can afford. In this instance, Noveck employed students at her law school to do the work. Hence, if anything, this case study shows clearly that administrative fixes, no matter how clever, cannot ameliorate the negative effects of imperfect policies on agencies. As Noveck notes, the United States’ current patent law encourages and rewards the submission of trivial applications. The agency is self-funded, but, unfortunately, its revenues in excess of costs usually are siphoned off for use by the rest of the federal government.

Peer-to-Patent and Wiki Government both have some shortcomings as an argument for reengineering government to produce collaborative democracy. First, it is far from clear what percentage of Americans have the time to get involved. Yes, the online forums that Noveck imagines probably will draw more and better public input than the old “public comment” approach. (Who, other than bureaucrats, lobbyists, and PAR subscribers, reads the Federal Register?) Nonetheless, Walter Lippmann’s observation 80 years ago still rings true: “the citizen gives but a little of his time to public affairs” (1927, 15). People have lives to live, jobs to hold, children and pets to care for, and friends to enjoy. Few seem likely to want to log time online studying and discussing the latest government proposal to regulate arsenic emissions. Quite probably, the usual crowd (Beltway lobbyists and environmental advocates) will dominate the discussion.

More generally, collaborative governance appears to have a limited applicability to the policy process as a whole. It is difficult to conceive of a way that the public could be invited to participate further in the legislative or judicial processes. This leaves the executive process, the great domain of public administration.

There also is the matter of politics. Noveck seems to make the classic Goo-Goo assumption that the people in politics and government are eager beavers who want to do good. “What policymakers would not embrace the opportunity to sit down with technologists, lawyers, anthropologists, artists, economists, designers, and others to figure out how to do their job better?” (167). The answer, plainly, is plenty of folks, including legislators, bureaucrats, judges, and anyone who wants to do his or her work without further scrutiny. To have information and discretion is to have power, and many in government would view proposals to open up the decision-making process as a widening of the loop that weakens their control (Schattschneider 1960).

Indeed, one of the great shifts in American government has been toward a “unitary executive” approach toward administration. Agencies are now tools in presidents’ and their parties’ permanent campaigns. In order to bolster their reelection chances and their leverage vis-à-vis legislatures, executives exploit information asymmetries. Notably, Noveck was able to get the USPTO to pilot Peer-to-Patent because she had the backing of some of the agency’s biggest customers (such as IBM, which submits loads of applications), and because the USPTO happens to be led by an entrepreneurial individual. For the USPTO, there was little to lose in giving collaborative democracy a whirl on a small scale. Suffice to say, these are rather unusual conditions. (How Noveck got this project off the ground is a fascinating case study in governance in the age of the Internet.)

Yet, for all these limitations, I maintain that Noveck’s book is worth reading. To some degree, collaborative governance has long been with us. Federal courts allow persons uninvolved with a case to submit amicus curiae briefs. Law enforcement agencies seek information through tip lines and posting “Wanted” posters in post offices. All levels of government in the United States hold public hearings on administrative issues. In each instance, the practices admit that John Q. Public can help public officials do their work.

Now, though, collaborative government innovations are really taking off. The reasons are not difficult to see. Two decades ago, e-mail was a novelty enjoyed by a few folks at research institutes. Now it is ubiquitous, as are online music, videos, and shared work spaces. Internet technologies are ubiquitous. While the older among us might find this all new and a bit dizzying, it is indubitable that a new generation of citizens is arising, one that has integrated Internet technologies into their daily lives. There are hundreds of millions of users of Wikipedia and social media spaces such as Facebook. These individuals expect to communicate and work online. For this reason, elected officials, with an ear toward the ground, have set up Web pages that feature YouTube videos and Twitter messages. (For example, see Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s Web site at

Additionally, the federal government has a leader who has gotten behind the sort of reforms that Wiki Government advocates. At the start of his presidency, President Obama issued a memorandum directing the head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to instruct agencies on how to make government more transparent and increase public collaboration and participation (Obama 2009). The OMB released its instructions in December 2009. Each agency must create an “Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.” The memorandum also directs them to “publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications” (Orszag 2009, 4, 2).

The Federal Register, for example, now is published in XML format, which means that its contents can be drawn on and used by the public. So, for example, there is, a Web site that enables individuals to easily find and discuss proposed rules by agency (e.g., Agricultural Research Service) or issue area (e.g., passenger vessels). And those who want to follow the who, what, and when of the legislative process can surf to This Web site, which was created by a graduate student, draws on multiple sources of government information to make tracking a bill very easy.

As the Open Government Initiative Web site ( displays, the federal government has created a plethora of new online resources., for example, provides access to more than 100,000 government data sets. Web sites range from the very geeky to the slightly silly. The IT Dashboard ( displays data on government investments in information technology. The Department of Health and Human Services’ flu prevention public service announcement competition ( offered $2,500 to the person who created the most engaging video to encourage the public to get vaccinated. (The rapping “Hip Hop Doc” took the prize.) This is not, for sure, your father’s federal government.

For public administrators, then, Wiki Government is a wake-up call as to where things are heading. But, we need not be mere spectators; we can make ourselves useful by trying to figure out when these collaborative government reforms work, when they do not, and why. Who better to do this than those who understand the machinery through which government operates?

Clearly, Wiki Government–type reforms will not work well everywhere. The Defense Advanced Research Project recently had a successful experiment in deploying online collaboration to locate weather balloons scattered around the nation ( More than 4,000 teams participated, and a group from Massachusetts Institute of Technology finished the task in under nine hours (Hesse 2009). Oppositely, the National Archive and Record Administration’s attempt to get teachers and scholars to collaborate online has drawn little public participation ( Every one of these recent attempts at collaborative governance is a case study waiting to be done.

The golden ring for public administrators would be to produce a schema that identified the general characteristics of agencies and their activities and clarified which were most likely to gel with collaborative democratic reforms. I am envisioning an analysis like Theodore Lowi did in his famous book review, “American Business, Public Policy, Case-Studies, and Political Theory” (1964). While I will resist attempting to reproduce that feat here, I imagine that regulatory agencies might tend to be well suited to collaborative governance. They already have a history of permitting public input, and the audiences who follow their activities tend to be those with a stake in the outcomes (affected industries, public interest groups, etc.) and most able to offer useful input to the agencies.

Undertaking these sorts of studies will not be every public administrator’s cup of tea. As a field, however, we would be foolish to miss this moment.