engaging the edge – activating citizen experts for innovation that works

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Presentation delivered at UNDP Innovation Summit in November 2013. It deals with how large, corporate bureaucracy can engage innovators "at the edge" while still complying with accountability requirements. Based on an experience led by the Council of Europe in 2011-2012.


Engaging the edgeActivating citizen experts for innovation that works

Alberto Cottica

Its great to be here, thank you all for making it and for inviting me! I am originally from Italy, now based in Brussels. I have worked for or in government for the past seven years, mostly with the Ministry of economic development in Italy and the Council of Europe. I am going to share with you my own innovation dilemmas and how I attempt to solve them. I will start by laying out a diagnosis of why we meet with so many roadblocks and where we can look to for inspiration to solve them; then I will explain this in the context of a project I directed while at the Council of Europe.

So, you want more innovation. Welcome to the club. Its a big club these days. And for a good reason: humanity is facing massive systemic challenges globalization, rogue finance, climate change, the rise in inequalities, the marginalization of the young generation is some parts of the world. These challenges have not been created by some state or other social agent taking conscious action: nobody voted for them. Rather, they are emergent consequences of myriads of independently made decisions by INTERdependent agents such as individuals, businesses, banks and government agencies.

Since we, the people, did not start these things, we the people have no undo button. We need to come up with something to tackle these issues, fast. We need to innovate.

Administrative & HR resources of a major govt

Budget > 40M Euro

Decision made by a former IBM Italy CEO

Trouble is, innovation is hard. Hard for everyone, but it seems especially hard for large corporate organizations, and even more so when these organizations are part of the public sector. Heres an innovation story from my native country, Italy. This is former Minister Francesco Rutelli in 2007, announcing the going live of a government project called italia.it Italia.it was to be an e-commerce portal to sell the services of Italian companies in the tourism industry. On paper this was a strong project, with a generous budget, the administrative and human resources of a major government, and the leadership of a decision maker, former Innovation minister Lucio Stanca, who used to be an IBM senior manager and knew well the space of large ICT projects. Despite such a favorable context, the project failed, obviously and controversially, to provide any value to the country.

This is a high profile example. But in most countries failure has become the new normal in public policies; this is true at all scales of intervention, from large infrastructures to street-level urban maintenance; and at all institutional levels, from the international to the local. Just read any paper, or talk to anyone.

Why is that? To answer this question, we need to open the hood and have a look at the engine of public policies.

administrative process

democratic representation+

In the best case scenario, under the hood of public policies one finds democratic representation and administrative process.

?Representation means that citizens choose someone to make decisions in their name and in the common interest. This system is very inclusive, since voting is very easy. But it cannot take advantage the wealth of information, skills and passion embedded in the citizenry. Many try to propose ideas or offer criticisms to the representative, but she no matter how smart and hard-working can never incorporate all of them in her mind maps. The vast majority of the citizenrys cognitive capital is lost in step 1!

The representative makes decision as best as she can. These decisions are then enacted by way of administrative processes. These are designed as a trasmission chain for decisions made a priori. When run well, they are very impartial and avoid abuses or worse. However, this also makes them notoriously bad at handling exceptions, scenario changes, sudden crisis... and also unsolicited information volunteered by citizens, even if it is valuable. This is reflected in the language of public policies, that calls citizens recipients, beneficiaries or even target groups. They are seen as passive material, rather than protagonists.

Citizens as experts

This is a tragic waste of human resources. Citizens have valuable knowledge that could be deployed to design, monitor and sometimes even implement public policies. In the case of italia.it, its failure did NOT come as a surprise to most observers: it had been widely predicted. The rigidity of the administrative process prevented the government from digesting that information and cancelling the project, or at least trying to fix it. What would happen if you could recruit your citizens to help with designing and deploying your public policies?

Before we go into that, Id like to take a minute to highlight the meaning of the word knowledge in this context. Sometimes we are polling citizens for their opinions or intentions, like in election polls. In these cases, we know the space of available alternatives before we start; some will vote for the gray party, others for the rainbow party, others will not vote at all. We just dont know how many will do one thing versus the other.

Well, this is not what we mean here. What we mean is that citizens might have a different and richer outlook on the problem space than we have. It makes sense: theres more of them than there is of us, so they can throw at any given problem a massively superior quantity of brainpower. Also, for the development problems you are most interested in, they have the additional advantage that they live in all of those developing regions and countries; they were born and bred there, they speak the languages, they have access to information vectors that are not accessible to us. Citizens are experts.

This is not new. Citizens have always been experts. What is new is the scale at which they can work together. For clarity, I am going to argue what follows in terms of processes that are enabled by electronic networks. I appreciate that some of you are working in countries where Internet access is by no means a commodity available to all citizens. Widely available Internet access does add extra scale, but citizen experts are mobilized by means of social processes: technology can be a useful tool, but thats not where the action is. You can get very valuable results out of simple tech like SMS, post-its or paper messageboards, as long as the social and administrative plumbing are right.

With that in mind, lets look at what happens when you mobilize a large number of citizen experts. Consider, for a moment, Wikipedia...

1.5 million active editors

4 million entries (English)

no command structure, no money

Compare this to italia.it. How is a result like that achieved? Why such a large difference? Well, because under the hood Wikipedia has a very different engine.

social networks


Under the hood of processes like this we find self selection and social networks. Self selection means this: each Wikipedia editor decides by herself that she wants to be a Wikipedia editor; which entries she wants to work on, and when. She needs no permission and has no boss. This means that each and every one of 1.5 million of editors are positioned right at the point of maximum impact where shes writing about things she is knowledgeable about and of minimum effort where she is writing about things she is passionate about, when she is ready for it. This is a Pareto-optimal result, and its beauty is that it happens without anyone needing to keep track of what millions of people know about and care about. The pairing of Wikipedia entries and editors as well as their working schedule is completely emergent. You have been hearing about complexity theory, and complexity is indeed the lens through which most scholars look at processes like this.

social networks


Social networks means that the social norms and the software underpinning wikipedia allow and encourage people working on the same entry to interact. This is why Wikipedia is self-correcting: people working on the same entry can correct each others errors, discuss if they are not sure what to do, or flag the entry to call others for help.

Self-selection and social networks give rise to a pattern of information exchanges and collaboration that is completely emergent: no one designed it indeed no human designer could ever do such a thing. Generally, it has a fantastically complex layout, because it results from a myriad of individual decisions. This complexity is thought to be the mathematical signature of the blinding speed and incredible efficiency of these processes. You are looking at collective intelligence: an intelligent process that operates at a larger-then-human scale. It looks nothing like a command tree.

Signing the reality check

So why dont we do this in government? Its not that civil servants dont get this; its that it does not sit well with prevailing notions of accountability. Open processes get things done: they are accountable to their outcome. Administrative processes do things by the book: they are accountable mostly to the procedure. You can probably argue that accountability to the outcome is a legitimate form of accountability, but you cant single-handedly change the rules and procedures channeling your work. You are stuck. So, by the way, are most large companies and NGOs, because they are Weberian bureaucracies just like public sector agencies.

Accountable to whom?

This is true across the policy spectrum, but it is especially true for innovation. Innovators especially the radical ones are trying to build a new world that contains their innovation: they make thems