Six Questions For ExpertNet


With barely three days left, the ExpertNet online consultation is quickly drawing to a close. Like many others, I’ve been reading along with great interest and even made the occasional contribution.

There are a number of key parameters that I believe are critical to understanding what ExpertNet is trying to achieve and how. As I pointed out three weeks ago, some of these questions haven’t been sufficiently answered. As a result, the conversations have at times lacked the focus and overall direction they deserve.

Consultations need structure and guidance. To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pie-in-the-sky brainstorming or thinking outside the box. In fact, it can be quite productive to give participants the freedom to disregard for a moment any constraints that may exist in the real world and to let the discussions veer off in every which way. However, at some point things need to converge. After a period of more or less unstructured, open-ended exploration the convener must help the participants to refocus. In order for the consultation to stay productive and progress towards its stated goals, at least a few loose ends need to be tied up every now and then. Otherwise, a lot of energy will be spent on items that are out of scope and won’t lead anywhere.

Below are six fairly high-level questions that I wish the convener team had clarified early in the process:

  1. Top-down or bottom-up? Based on the briefing materials it’s pretty obvious that we’re looking at a top-down approach (government asking the questions and initiating the consultations with citizens). However, a lot of ideas and input have focused on opportunities for bottom-up processes as well. There is nothing wrong with allowing bottom-up input, but it has considerable implications for the business processes.
  2. Fact-based advice or deliberative policy creation? The original draft focused on seeking verifiable, fact-based advice from citizen experts. However, later statements have hinted at a significantly broader scope that would allow officials “to pose questions to the public about any topic we’re working on.” Given the nature of many of the topics mentioned (job creation, preventing homelessness among veterans etc.), ExpertNet would have to support policy consultations that are much more deliberative by nature. This has huge design implications.
  3. Experts or general public? This one has been more or less answered, though it took almost three weeks. Basically, everyone who “is interested and has something relevant and useful to share” is invited to participate. Or in other words, the general public.
  4. Self-organization or facilitation? It’s hard to tell just how much human intervention ExpertNet will require to function properly (for things like process design, outreach, community management, moderation, facilitation, data analysis, evaluation etc.). Some seem to prefer an “objective”, self-organizing system that runs on auto pilot. Others realize that in some cases there may well be a need for careful facilitation. Again, this affects what the tool will look like.
  5. Open source? This has been a fairly popular topic with passionate arguments for and against using (and building) open source tools, or rather making it a requirement. Yet again, it remains unclear whether this is indeed a hard requirement at this point but it sure would be helpful to know. Which brings up another issue:
  6. Tool? Platform? Service? Program? Initially, it sounded like ExpertNet was supposed to be a new, custom-built piece of software (“a government-wide software tool and process to elicit expert public participation”). During the discussions, however, a few other options have been mentioned that might help government achieve the same goal of obtaining “useful, relevant, and manageable feedback”. For example, ExpertNet might initially rely on several of the many existing tools and focus on understanding the use cases first.

It doesn’t really matter what exactly the answer is to any of these questions. What matters is that there is enough clarity as possible in order to stay somewhat efficient. If the conveners know that ExpertNet will be top-down then it’s clear that any discussion about bottom-up won’t have much of an impact. If they’re already dead set on building a new tool the discussions around using existing tools and services probably aren’t necessary. If they are open to considering use cases that require facilitation but are concerned about resource needs and cost then that is something that should be worked out in more detail. The same applies to several legal issues that have been brought up.

Too often over the past few weeks it felt like participants were guessing at the requirements.

About the author: Tim Bonnemann is the founder, President and CEO of Intellitics, Inc., a digital engagement company based in San José, California (USA).

2 comments… add one

  • Kitty Wooley Jan 22, 2011

    I find myself asking why all the questions are posed in binary form – a both/and approach works a lot better sometimes. Clearly, the old ways of doing things are no longer sufficient, and that networked activity can inform and improve hierarchically organized work. That said, here is my opinion.

    1) Both. There isn’t really have a choice now. Yes, bottom-up participation has huge implications for business processes – partly because many organizations don’t really want to have to think about changing processes and allowing a flatter conversation. But they’re going to have to, because at some point the gap between the way the worlds of commerce and government related to citizens will widen so much that it will create a crisis if they don’t. And, as officials commit to that conversation, all sorts of creative solutions will appear from those who are not actively participating yet, because they’ll believe that it’s not a waste of their time. Rob Pegoraro’s 1/16/11 Washington Post article addresses this: “Manufacturers have taught us to expect frequent wish fulfillment followed by continuous improvement.”

    2) Focus on fact-based advice and get the process really working first. Than, experiment with deliberative policy creation via pilots and see how it works.

    3) Both. As the current conversation on GovLoop illustrates, some traditional expert domains are being reshaped and improved by general participation.

    4) Don’t let it run on autopilot. There should be at least some human moderation to keep the conversation from becoming mechanical and destructive. Solicit input on this point from multi-sector online community managers who have been interviewed for Community Roundtable, which furthers the discipline of community management and disseminates best practices. Government-related community managers at the MAX Federal Community and GovLoop should be consulted as well.

    5) Open source.

    6) Leverage existing tools and focus on understanding the use cases first. There is still way too much focus on cool tools and not nearly enough focus on bringing people together in constructive, sticky ways that engage their best thinking and enlist their buy-in and commitment. As a country, we will need that in the future, as we finally tackle some tough problems that can’t be put off any longer.

  • Tim Jan 22, 2011

    Thanks, Kitty!

    You are absolutely correct in that these questions aren’t binary choices for the most part. I was just trying to make the point that ExpertNet could conceivably take a number of vastly different directions depending on how each of these questions is answered.

    I agree that “yes, and” or “let’s focus on this thing now, but keep other thing in mind for later” are perfectly legitimate answers.

    Either way, it would have helped to receive this kind of direction during the consultation.

    Like your answers!

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