I’ve been observing the Globe Policy Wiki with enormous interest. I’m broadly supportive of all of Mathew Ingram’s experiments and efforts to modernize the Globe. That said, my sense is that this project project faces a number of significant challenges. Some from the technology, others around how it is managed. Understanding and cataloging the ups and downs of such this effort is essential. At some point (I suspect in the not too distant future) wikis will make their way into the government’s policy development process – the more we understand the conditions under which they flourish, the more likely such experiments will be undertaken successfully.
Here are some lessons I’ve taken away:
1. The problem of purpose: accuracy vs. effectiveness
Wiki’s are clearly effective at spreading concrete, specific knowledge. Software manuals, best practice lists and Wikipedia works because – more often than not – they seek to share a concrete, objective truth. Indeed “the goal” of Wikipedia is to strive for verifiable accuracy. Consequently, a Wikipedia article on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi can identify that he was born on October 2nd, 1869. We can argue whether or not this is true, but he was born on a specific day, and people will eventually align around the most accurate answer. Same with a software wiki – a software bug is caused by a specific, verifiable, set of circumstances. Indeed, because the article is an assemblage of facts its contributors have an easier time pruning or adding to the article.
Indeed, it is where there is debate and subjective interpretation that things become more complicated in Wikipedia. Did George Bush authorize torture? I’ll bet Wikipedia has hosted a heady debate on the subject that, as yet, remains unresolved.
A policy wiki however, lives in this complicated space. This is because the goal of a policy wiki is not accuracy. Policies are are not an assemblage of facts whose accuracy can be debated. A policy is a proposal – an argument – informed by a combination of assumptions, evidence and values. How does one edit an argument? If we share different values, what do I edit? If I have contradictory evidence, what do I change? Can or should one edit a proposal they simply don’t agree with? In Wikipedia or in online software manual the response would be: “Does it make the piece more accurate?” If the answer is yes, the you should.
But with is the parallel guiding criteria for a policy wiki? “Does it make the policy more effective?” Such a question is significantly more open to interpretation. Who defines effective?
It may be that for a policy wiki will only work within communities that share a common goal, or that at least have a common metric for assessing effectiveness. More likely, Wikis in areas such as public policy may require an owner who ultimately acts as an arbiter deciding which edits stand and which edits will get deleted.
2. Combining voting with editing is problematic.
The goal of having people edit and improve a policy proposal runs counter to those of having them vote on a proposal. A wiki is, by definition, dynamic. Voting – or any preference system – implies that what is being voted on is static and unchanging; a final product that different people can assess. How can a user vote in favour of something if, the next day, if it can be changed into something I may disagree with it? By allowing simultaneously for voting and editing I suspect the wiki discourages both. Voters are unsure if what they are voting for will stay the same, editors were likely wary of changing anything too radically because the voting option suggests proposals shouldn’t change too much – undermining the benefits of the wiki platform.
3. While problematic for editing, the Policy Wiki could be a great way to catalog briefs
One thing that is interesting about the wiki is that anyone can post their ideas. If the primary purpose were to create a catalogue of ideas the policy wiki could be a great success. Indeed, given that people are discouraged from radically altering policy notes this is effectively what the Policy Wiki is (is it still a wiki?). Presently the main obstacle to this success is the layout. The policy briefs currently appear in a linear order based on when they were submitted. This means a reader must scroll through them one by one. There is no categorization or filtering mechanism to help readers find policies they specifically care about. A search feature would enable readers to find briefs with key words. Also, enabling users to “tag” briefs would allow readers to filter the briefs in more useful ways. One could, for example, ask to see briefs tagged “environment,” or “defense” taking you to the content you want to see faster.
Such filtering approaches might distribute readers more accurately based on their interests. In a recent blog post Ingram notes that the Flat Tax briefing note received the most page views. But this should hardly come as a surprise (and probably should not be interpreted as latent interest in a flat tax). The flat tax brief was the first brief on the list. Consequently, casual observers showing up on the site to see what it was all about were probably just clicking on the first brief to get a taste.