A policy document is more than collabrated context

Posted: October 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

My argument: When online collaboration is a good way to gather information and inspire thoughts, is it not a practical tool to fulfill the function of political deliberation and policy making in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, and feasibility.

Nielsen (2010) argued in his article that when a rating system is incorporated, open editing mechanism may be a practical way to achieve satisfying policies because it allows publics to participate in the policy-making process. He explained that  

“the idea is to allow open editing of policy documents, in much the same way the Mathworks competition allows open editing of computer programs.”(link)

The basis for Nielsen’s suggestion lies in the idea of commonplace book. Johnson (2010) explained how a commonplace book worked in the early year by quoting the historian Robert Darnton that

 “you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”(link)

Effectiveness problem:

A Policy document requires clear logic and precise wording. The descriptions in such document need to back-to-back rather than jumping. Based on Johnson’s quotation, although key words are provided in a commonplace book, the combinations of them are random and infinite. Each person can read the exact same context but come up with totally different schemes and understandings.

It is not always true that “more is better”. The process of policy making is most efficient when a limited number of people are engaged. Berger and Nitsch (2008) discussed the optimized number of people in deciding about monetary policy,

“the benefits of committee size are likely to become smaller as more and more people sit around the table. When individual members have fewer chances to influence a decision, they may have a larger incentive to free ride on the information-processing efforts of others.”(link)

Efficiency problem:

Also, the open-editing mechanism adds great difficulty in making policies timely.

 “The biggest barrier in distributed collaboration is the unreachability of distant partners. Normally partners make schedules and meet regularly to coordinate tasks and make new schedules. However, when unscheduled and exigent problems arise, they usually feel helpless either because of the unawareness of their partner’s phone number, or as a result of the unwillingness to get in touch with their partners at the cost of expensive international calls, which largely decrease the effectiveness in distributed collaboration.” (link)

Thus, the efficiency is not guaranteed in the open-editing process.

Feasibility problem:

Furthermore, there exists the problem of feasibility. When open editing allows people with conflicting interests to make a policy together, the chance that a mutual satisfying policy can be made is tiny. A good example is the great discussions among major research universities about the issue of researchers’ contact with pharmaceutical representatives. It was reported that

“despite the new ideas and years of discussions that preceded them, American universities are nowhere close to fixing their conflict-of-interest problems.” (link)

Consensus is hard to reach. At the end, some authorities need to step up to balance the interests and make a final decision, just like what we have been doing for a long time.

  1. I agree with your points. Leadership is a valuable skill, and a needed one when developing ideas of such great importance. To have a group of thousands contribute to something as legally complex as say the health care law would be a nightmare. Imagine the competing interests. Imagine the jargon. And, within the document, imagine the variety of writing styles, lack of common context, and possibilities for loopholes. Allowing the public to have input is one thing. Allowing everyone to change and edit documents before they were employed just might be chaos.

  2. Shine Lyui says:

    Good points. That’s why I have come to realize that the Eastern way of adhering to an honorable leader instead of everyone being the leader should be promoted. It’s the same as our religions today, where we follow the teachings of the masters, sages or god. You rarely see people discussing and creating their religious thoughts out of thin air. Why can’t we do the same thing in politics? Of course we can. But the problem now lies within how we can find a leader whom everyone can trust and is willing to follow.

  3. tinamomo says:

    I agree with you that consensus is hard to achieve. Nielson might be too optimistic to apply technique practice to political area. I was a little confused about the rating system he brought out at the end of his article. He mentioned the rating system adopted by Mathworks, according to him, it’s ‘secret’. So we have no idea whether it’s biased or not, but it wouldn’t matter any way because as long as they adopt the same rating system, the result is still fair. However, when it comes to policy making, it’s obviously more complicated. There could be an incredible amount of struggle to reach a consensus about the rating method before the actual open system is applied.

  4. Carol says:

    You made a great argument about the problem of policy making by online collaboration. I totally agree with you that it is very difficult to fulfill everybody’s interest when making a policy. If we open the policy editing for everyone, the interest can never be balanced. I sometimes think that the policy and the law are made for those who are with powers, for they will know how to get benefits from manipulating the law.

  5. I disagree that “The basis for Nielsen’s suggestion lies in the idea of commonplace book.” Nielsen was not talking at all about a commonplace book, or anything similar to one. He wrote about Wikipedia.

    Link to Berger and Nitsch (2008) seems to be broken.

    Your fourth quote seems not connected to the point you made: “the open-editing mechanism adds great difficulty in making policies timely.” Your quote rather is about the nature of collaboration.

    Your fifth quote says nothing specific that is related to this argument: “despite the new ideas and years of discussions that preceded them, American universities are nowhere close to fixing their conflict-of-interest problems.” It says nothing about online policy making or online collaboration, for example.

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