Wikis find role in community governance

Supporter urges feds to learn from online collaboration

Ohio State University philosophy lecturer Larry Sanger envisions a democracy in which citizens will improve policy decisions by making their ideas known through public Web pages that they can modify.

He is talking about collaborative Web page technology used to create "wikis." The word comes from the Hawaiian "wiki wiki," which means fast.

Wikipedia is a classic example of the use of wiki technology. It is an online, evolving encyclopedia that a community of users updates with the trust that the posters have good intentions.

Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia, offered three reasons why government agencies should make use of wikis when he spoke at FCW Events' Web-Enabled Government Conference this month.

"Collaboration helps to build consensus, which is crucial in much government work," Sanger said. "Collaboration fills in the gaps and creates complete documents. Government is interested in fairness, which often means representing all sides. Wiki-based collaboration allows all to have an equal role in the document development process. This inherently supports democracy."

But decentralized collaboration can be unreliable. Sanger mentioned several suggestions for using wikis effectively. A good approach is to select wiki editors, even though that is anti-wiki, he said. "The whole thing that makes wikis work is that they have a flat management structure."

Other options, he said, include lowering expectations or simply letting the collective monitoring of document changes provide a form of peer review. "This is a problem with Wikipedia, I fully admit," Sanger said. "Wikipedia and others have pages that are substandard."

For that reason, despite his students' pleas, Sanger does not let them use Wikipedia as an authoritative source.

But Sanger said government officials could use wikis to do what private organizations cannot do. "We could institute official collaborative policy-making committees, extended throughout the United States and working in real time," he said. "Such groups are theoretically essential to participatory democracy."

Some small governmental bodies have already created wikis. For example, a Queens, N.Y., community board member created BeyondVoting, a community governance wiki. Tom Lowenhaupt, the wiki's founder and a governance systems developer, said he hopes the wiki will help raise board members' awareness of community concerns. Lowenhaupt said he wants to apply the same technology to the city's charter revision process after he completes an evaluation of the BeyondVoting wiki.

E-democracy experts, however, say the BeyondVoting wiki will need a focused purpose to be effective. Steven Clift, editor of the Democracies Online e-mail discussion list, said wikis "really need to feed and foster a sense of direction."

Clift said editors should sift through wiki contributions before delivering them to decision-makers. Clift added that Lowenhaupt should print only the most valuable material to deliver to board members.

Also, some federal agencies have started using wikis. The CIO Council's Communities of Practice Web site is a wiki for revising a governmentwide federal document, the data reference model. The public contributes to the revisions.

In government, programming wikis have been successful. NASA employees rely on a wiki Web site to modify open-source code in NASA's World Wind, which is software for viewing satellite imagery. Millions of people who have downloaded the 200M World Wind program, or anyone else for that matter, can use the wiki to suggest code modifications. A private organization unaffiliated with NASA operates the wiki.

Better governance through wikis

Wikipedia co-founder and Ohio State University lecturer Larry Sanger thinks that wiki Web sites can help government agencies become more effective in at least three ways:

  • By building the consensus that is crucial for democratic governments.
  • By filling in knowledge gaps to create more thoroughly researched public documents.
  • By promoting fairness by representing all sides of an issue.

— Aliya Sternstein


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