Connected Governance

This week saw the publication of two very thoughtful articles on the impact that networks are having on society, and what that means for the future of governance.  The first was Catherine Bracy and Jim Pugh’s What’s Progressive About ‘Peer Progressives’? and the second was Om Malik’s Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work.

Both get at essentially the same question: as more of our daily activities happen in a connected and networked fashion, what does that mean for how we govern ourselves?

Om asks if we’re ready for the hyper-accountable “data darwinism” that comes from living in a quantified society.  Take, for instance, the Uber driver with a consistent record of poor customer satisfaction, who is unceremoniously dropped from the platform (and possibly,from the broader on-demand labor pool).  Perhaps fair, but with a degree of abruptness that we’re not yet accustomed to.

Bracy and Pugh build squarely on Steven Johnson’s idea of Peer Progressivism and ask what government can do to help peer networks grow and thrive while still ensuring that basic rights are not passed over by market activity.  Similar question as Om raises, but more focused on ensuring equal access and opportunity.

Both are getting at the same big idea: that web platforms are a lot like governments (as my colleague Brad wrote about several years ago).  And in many ways, these platforms are ahead of the game (relative to some of our public institutions) in figuring out “Governance 2.0”.

Every one of these peer-driven, connected systems (from eBay, to Airbnb, to Uber and Lyft, etc.) has built — out of necessity for the creation of a functioning marketplace — internal trust, safety and dispute resolution systems.  These systems, which are usually some form of reciprocal rating, make it possible for people to trust one another and do business together, and in general, these systems are super effective at achieving that goal. Almost by definition, they serve the interests of users of the platform (both on the producer and consumer side of a marketplace).  And by and large, they are  adaptive rather than prescriptive — meaning that by default I “have a shot” at proving myself in the marketplace, and then my reputation evolves as I do stuff.

But as Bracy and Pugh point out, this is not same thing as a publicly-run government.  Each of these networks is a purpose-built community (either for-profit like the ones above, or nonprofit like Wikipedia or Mozilla), whose interest is in maximizing the productive or economic activity within the platform, not necessarily advancing or protecting other public interests.  And, by and large, these systems are internally-focused and don’t take into account externalities (e.g., noise and foot traffic that neighbors of an Airbnb apartment might not like).  And as Om points out, there is a lot of responsibility, and there are new forms of risk, in this hyper-accountable reputation-driven environment.

This raises all kinds of interesting questions for governments.  How can they take advantage of the creative and economic opportunity that these networks present?  How might they adapt these “2.0” models of governance?  How can they create adequate space for new new models of doing business to emerge and prove themselves?

And most importantly, how can they ensure that the public’s interests are being met in this new environment (hint: it’s going to be different than how it’s been done in the past)?

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