Wedding Open Source to Government Service Delivery

One of the challenges I’m most interested in is how we can wed “open” systems to government hierarchies. In a lecture series I’ve developed for Health Canada I’ve developed a way of explaining how we do this already with our 911 service.

To begin, I like using 911 as an example because people are familiar and comfortable with it. More importantly, virtually everyone agrees that it is not only an essential piece of modern government service but also among the most effective.

What is interesting is that 911, unlike many government programs, relies on constant citizen input.  It is a system that has been architected to be participatory. Indeed it only works because it is participatory – without citizen input the system falls apart. Specifically, it aggregates, very effectively, the long-tail 0f knowledge within a community to deliver, with pin point accuracy, an essential service to the location it is needed at a time it is needed.

I’ve visualized in this slide below (explanation below the fold)

long tail public policy

Imagine the white curve represents all of the police, fire and ambulance interventions in a city. Many of the most critical interventions are ones the police force and ambulance service determine themselves (shaded blue). For example, the police are involved in an investigation that results in a big arrest, or the ambulance parks outside an Eagles reunion concert knowing that some of the boomers in attendance will be “over-served” and will suffer a heart attack.

However, while investigations and predictable events may account for some police/fire/ambulatory actions (and possibly those that receive the most press attention) the vast majority of arrests, fire fights and medical interventions result from plain old 911 calls made by ordinary citizens (shaded red). True, many of these are false alarms, or are resolved with minimal effort (a fire extinguisher deals with the problem, or minor amount of drugs are confiscated but no arrests made). But the sheer quantity of these calls means that while the average quality may be low, they still account for the bulk of successful (however defined) interventions. Viewed in this light 911 is a knowledge aggregator, collecting knowledge from citizens to determine where police cars, fire trucks and ambulances need to go.

Thus to find a system that leverages citizens knowledge and is architected for participation we don’t need to invent something new – there are existing systems, like 911, that we can learn from.

With this in mind, two important lessons about 911 leap out at me:

1) It is a self-interested system: While many 911 callers are concerned citizens calling about someone else I suspect the majority of calls – and the most accurate calls – are initiated by those directly or immediately impacted by a situation. People who have been robbed, are suffering from a heart attack, or who have a fire in their kitchen are highly incented to call 911. Consequently, the system leverages our self interest, although it also allows for good Samaritans to contribute as well.

2) It is narrowly focused in its construct: 911 doesn’t ask callers or permit callers to talk about the nature of justice, the history of fire, or the research evidence supporting a given medical condition. It seeks a very narrow set of data points: the nature of the problem and its location. This is helpful to both emergency response officials and citizens. It limits the quantity of data for the former and helps minimize the demands on the latter.

These, I believe, are the secret ingredients to citizen engagement of the future. A passive type of engagement that seeks specific, painless information/preferences/knoweldge from citizens to augment or redistribute services more effectively.

It isn’t sexy, but it works. Indeed we have 20 years of evidence showing us how well it works with regards to one of our most important services.

13 thoughts on “Wedding Open Source to Government Service Delivery

  1. Mike Shaver

    I think another key aspect of the success of 911 as a citizen-knowledge is that there are strong incentives (social and legal) to not abuse the system. Swatting aside, this is one reason that the signal is so high, and that emergency services can react to a report from an unknown person with high confidence.

  2. Devin Johnston

    This is a fantastic explanation and a good start. The challenge, though, is that for a lot of the other things that government might crowdsource the conditions you've identified are not immediately present. Instead, they must be created somehow. Identifying possible analogous systems and figuring out how to create the conditions for them to succeed are going to be important challenges to move government and society forward.

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  4. Tariq

    I've seen another version of what you're talking about at the recent TED convention in Monterey. (Wait. Was it Monterey? Maybe not. California anyway.) They had three TED Prize recipients, who did a lecture/presentation on something they wished for. Once they completed their presentation, the floor was opened up to the audience, not for a question and answer session, but instead for a “how can I help session”. It took a couple of tries before people really caught on (they kept asking questions and the moderator kept having to reinforce that it was not a Q&A) and then finally some people starting standing up, offering their help, or suggestions. One man offered the services of his web design company, free, to help make this person's wish come true. Another offered to create a documentary for their efforts, again for free. It was really inspiring to see a crowd of like-minded individuals come together and help build momentum to change the world. That said, I think government could potentially still go in this direction. Unfortunately, there is a fear of asking for input from the public – that you open yourself up to criticism, but like you pointed out, it can work if it stays focused. Kudos to the Governor General for opening up her web site to input from the public. I also heard recently about a city in Germany (I think it was Germany) who opened up the municipal budget to input from citizens where they actually got to manipulate the proposed budget. But if they wanted to raise spending in one area, they had to figure out where they were going to have to cut in other areas. It was a great exercise not only in engagement but also in education. So, it has been done, is being done and we just need to figure out how we can apply it here – that is – if we deem its application useful in each circumstance.

  5. david_a_eaves

    Mike – I completely agree, great additional thought. How do we prevent knowledge graffiti (noise) from clogging up less essential systems? The flip side is that most users of a system are incented to provide quality information, so perhaps the key is to try to restrict (insofar as possible) inputs to users…

  6. elliomeg

    Related to Tariq's second point, about participatory budgeting, a pilot project related to it was attempted in the lower mainland about five years ago. I remember sitting in on a meeting at the City of Vancouver where it was being discussed, but if memory serves me correctly (and it may not), it was quashed because the politicians at the time were loath to give up their decision making powers to ordinary folks.Here's the research project I was remembering: As someone who works in local government and deals with budgeting, my experience has been that it is very difficult to engage people. Unlike the 911 caller whose house is on fire, on a day-to-day basis most people don't seem to care. It's difficult enough to get folks to vote once every three years, let alone anything more time consuming. I’ve never seen any significant response until something people want is threatened with change. At that point those whose desired service/program/fee/tax rate is threatened offer up not very helpful suggestions like “some other [government/user group/business] should pay for [whatever it is that I want] or “don't cut my services or raise my taxes” or “be more efficient”. Personally I would love to see more people participate actively. Governments face difficult trade offs all the time (unlike a business you can’t just drop your unprofitable product lines) and I would prefer that folks cared enough about how their money is being spent to participate. Government money is *everyone’s* money and I would like to see the silent majority (not just special interest groups) give meaningful direction and hold us accountable for results.

  7. Stephane Dubord

    I think that's the key point in all of this: the level of significant responses.Most open consultations result in very few innovative ideas. They just get muddled in agenda-driven diatribes and random rants on government waste. The “average tax payer” seems to just keep wanting more services for less taxes, and clings to the notion that his hard-earned tax dollar is being wasted by an inefficient bureaucracy that needs to be cut in half. Fact is, the number of services has skyrocketed, while the number of Public Servants has remained fairly stable, so everyone IS doing more with less (and with long-term sick/burnout leave rising sharply every year, I'd say it's nearing a breaking point)I LOVE the idea of participatory government. Democracy in it's purest realistic form. Unfortunately, I'm just too pessimistic to be able to imagine the day that we'll have a society THAT engaged, unbiased and selfless to be able to get to real improvements and solutions, and not just posturing from special interest groups and venting from the rest.

  8. david_a_eaves

    Stephane, thank you for commenting. I think you've identified one of the key points I was trying to convey – that citizen engagement doesn't to always be concieved of as a broad blue-sky activity. As Shaver stated above we need to find ways to keep the noise (unhelpful ideas/info/knowledge) to signal (helpful ideas/info/knowledge) low. 911 is one example that suggests this may be most effectively accomplished when the input sought is narrow, focused and solicited from those with an immediate interest in the service.

  9. Stephane Dubord

    And as a follow-up to that question: how do you solicit narrow, focused input without appearing to favour a certain position/outcome, or be portrayed in the media as operating “behind closed doors”?

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