Congress has some of its lowest approval ratings ever. Arizona State University researchers will join an elite group of international experts to study ways to improve governance. Erik Johnston, director of the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University, and Justin Longo, also of the Center for Policy Informatics, will help study new uses of technologies, data, and public engagement to design innovative government programs. Johnston and Longo will talk about their efforts.
Ted Simons: ASU researchers are set to join an elite group of international experts on a study that looks to improve modern governance. Joining us now for more on this formidable task is Erik Johnston, director for center for policy informatics at ASU, and Justin Longo, also from ASU's center for policy informatics. Obviously the goal is to get better government but a research network on opening governance, what does that mean?
Erik Johnston: It means technology is changing the way that we work in terms of what Google can do, but also how we can work in terms of what government can do. As these possibilities come, you can either embrace them or try to resist them. What we're trying to do is figure out what are the best uses of technology within government so we can take advantage of this amazing democratic surplus of the people.
Ted Simons: Is there a particular issue, you crunch some numbers and get a result or an idea?
Justin Longo: There's particular ways to get people involved. I saw your show on Friday, your political panel was talking about the budgeting process. To have a state of six plus million people and a budget of 9 billion people decided by three people is odd. Participatory budgeting is one mechanism of getting a number of people around the issues of how to decide a budget for a particular location, getting them together around discussion of what the priorities are and how to spend and budget for a location.
Ted Simons: As far as the research on something like this goes, is it similar to mathematicians in baseball? Are you looking at numbers to move ideas or vice versa?
Erik Johnston: There's elements of that. So the MacArthur grant we just got is a $5 million grant to study it over three years. There are three key dimensions of it. First, how do we open up government to get expertise in? We have experts around the public that have something to say about government that can contribute to their communities. You have new programs like code for America or Teach for America or Habitat for Humanity, but how do we apply those skills to improving the community? The second aspect is how do we get data out? The government collects a tremendous amount of information. It's very valuable. You can see that because if you look at the biggest companies, the biggest success stories, the key element between them all is they were data focused. Google, EBay, Facebook, twitter. All have a data emphasis on to it, but government can also take advantage of that aspect. The third was what Justin was just referencing, this co-production of governance, getting people involved because they care.
Ted Simons: Yes, and to that point, you can give some lawmakers absolutely all the evidence they need to choose A, but because A is not within their policy mind set they are going to choose B. How do you get around that?
Justin Longo: Between the process of argumentation and persuasion. People look at the internet and think, really, we're going to use the internet to facilitate public discussions? It's given us more arguing but not necessarily better arguing. One objective is how do we get better of a arguing in the sense of persuading each other of what we think is the right thing to do. I believe we can work towards better persuasive arguing and get better outcomes.
Ted Simons: I think anyone who has read the comments section of anything online right now would say the less of that the better. When you research something like this what do you study? What data do you look at?
Erik Johnston: If you're studying the comments section of a discussion, technology can allow for the noise to be suppressed so it can study because people in general understand what a good comment is. Even if they don't agree with a comment they can understand something that's informative, valuable, that contributes to the conversation even if it's politically or ideologically opposite of them. They can identify when someone is just trying to provoke them. We studied, especially after something we called crowd sourcing civility which allows a lot of people to study the comments section and allow for the good conversations to filter to the top but noise to be suppressed. That's a technology solution to a very basic challenge.
Ted Simons: When you do these kinds of studies can you see the raw numbers panning out in a certain direction?
Erik Johnston: That's what's new now. Governance is taking place in a lot of forms that never were before. So, online communities. What we studied was what works, what doesn't to make them sustainable to give people a sense that they have a voice that they can change what's happening. Unlike our governance you can just switch to another online community. You can opt out. It gives you this wonderful natural experiment. You can test this worked here but not over here.
Ted Simons: Are we talking about moving a battleship here? Or can it move relatively quickly?
Justin Longo: I think it's a long-term process. Getting the technology right as well as we establishing the parameters of what good argue mentation looks like. You're right about the current internet, that language and the interaction is a lot to be desired. That's part of a process of relearning but also a process of getting the technology right to facilitate that, which is more effective than we see today.
Ted Simons: What do we do to get the technology right?
Erik Johnston: You scientifically study it instead of stumble toward it. That's one of the key aspects of this grant. There's a couple people involved. Including Beth Novak, Obama's original CTO, who was responsible for the open governance laws and data laws. The other person is the heavy hitter is Sir Tim Barnard Lee, credited for creating the internet. How do we architect these spaces in which we already participate in ways that allow good governance? People are frustrated with government. You probably hear that a lot. We take that as a positive because it means they still care.
Erik Johnston: What we are demonstrating is two things. One, academics is not going to wait for government to change itself. We're going to provide evidence for in this case or locality here's a wonderful example. Why can't Mesa use it? Mesa and Phoenix are relatively on the forefront of using technology and participatory methods to improve their government.
Ted Simons: There's a core group of 12 experts in all these diverse disciplines. You mentioned a couple of them.
Justin Longo: There's an advisory panel, another 50 or 60 who's who in terms of technology, economics, et cetera.
Ted Simons: You getting them all agreeing that this shows improvement or this A plus B equals C?
Justin Longo: Maybe not agreement, but movement towards agreement. I think we can move towards a consensus position that there are certain avenues that would be more effective than others. Everyone will always have their own opinion, but in this group we are going to see a lot of persuasive argumentation.
Ted Simons: This is a three-year study?
Justin Longo: It is a three-year study that just kicked off.
Ted Simons: After three years how will the results be presented?
Justin Longo: They will be presented continuously. The key is that a lot of people are doing this on their own right now. One of the big goals is to coordinate the efforts so that we have a systematic way of approaching government instead of a lot of individuals poking at it. It's not going to stop after three years. In fact it's just going to galvanize what's currently happening.
Ted Simons: The center for policy informatics at ASU. Tell us about this.
Erik Johnston: I would love to.
Ted Simons: You got about a minute so make it quick.
Justin Longo: We do three basic aspects. One, how can we organize now that we're in an information rich environment? You asked Mayor Stanton last night, what does that economy look like? We're trying to figure that out and give you examples. The second is how does technology change how we make decisions? Each of us carries around a supercomputer in your pocket. About an hour ago most people watching the show got a notification that a dust storm was coming. So, how does it change how they navigate the world? The third aspect of it is we can make better decisions. If Google is analyzing everything, if we have access to that we can make more informed decisions, be aware of what other people are doing. This technique is only possible in the last 10 or 15 years.
Ted Simons: Good luck. We're all rooting for you. Good to have you here.
Justin Longo: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Tomorrow it's our weekly look at state politics with the Arizona Capitol Times and efforts to improve development along the light-rail line in Phoenix.
Ted Simons: That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
Erik Johnston:Director, Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University; Justin Longo:Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University;