Sean Kershaw's Weblog
July 13, 2007
This Viewpoint was HARD to write, perhaps because it's hard to focus this month for some reason (or for the obvious reasons).
I'm posting the almost-final draft of the July/August in the Extended Entry below, just to see if people take a look at it in this format before the Journal hits the mailboxes. I'm not sure if I'll keep doing it or not.
If you like what's here, I owe the ideas in the piece to Peg Michels and Nate Garvis -- who helped me to frame this.
Has the Information Age dumbed-down democracy and policy making?
Re-thinking the role of information and experts in public policy
American democracy was conceived in the Age of Enlightenment and born at the dawn of the Industrial Age. A question before us now is how this democracy -- the way in which we solve public policy problems -- can thrive in the Information Age.
We live in a 24/7/networked/mass-customized/Googled-and-YouTubed world, where the pace of information increase exponentially. This is old news. But the cacophony created by this changing environment also robs us of the chance to reflect on how things are changing -- or in the case of public policy outcomes, how they are not changing.
This column began as an argument about the need to provide citizens with better information to build the capacity of these citizens to become better decision-makers on important policy choices. While providing information is certainly an essential function (and an essential role for the Citizens League), the lack of useful, objective, and easy to discern information may be the symptom of a larger problem.
In the chaos of this new era, we've lost the distinction between "information" and "knowledge," and set up an elaborate structure of public policy that rewards "experts" but effectively excludes the role and expertise that all citizens have to help solve policy issues. As a consequence, we've gotten good at studying public policy problems, but we've lost the ability to develop and implement effective solutions.
Knowledge vs. information
Webster's defines "knowledge" as "the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association." "Information" is "the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence," and does not depend on who created it, their role, or for what purpose it was created (emphasis added).
Knowledge has meaning in context. We each create knowledge, all the time, in the places and institutions where we spend time. We also have the ability to do something with this knowledge -- but our role often depends on our power and position within the world.
For example, it became clear to me through the work of the recent Minnesota Mental Health Action Group, which the Citizens League convened, that people with mental illnesses often have the best knowledge about what treatments work best for them. And these people have both the capacity and a role in their own treatment and wellness. But it also became clear to me that the reams of information and white papers on mental health reform did not sufficiently connect to this knowledge and capacity.
The role of experts in public policy
As a means of managing and valuing our current flood of information, we've professionalized it. We've increased the role of "experts," and made everyone else more passive in the process. On almost every important public policy issue, we've inadvertently created a new and unhelpful civic caste system of "experts" and "citizens" to manage the conversation and the action, downgrading the role of citizens -- everyone else -- to passive participants in this charade.
The evolution of this distinction is understandable, but it is corrosive to democracy and it keeps us from solving the policy issues that confront us. It excludes both the knowledge and expertise that all citizens have about "what works" for them, and eliminates their role in making policy solutions work.
In the case of mental health reform, the dozens of white paper recommendations on reform (including our own) provided too much information from experts and outsiders, and not enough practical involvement from a diverse group of stakeholders. And few of the recommendations ever became real. The Minnesota Mental Health Action group deliberately changed this dynamic, bringing together all of the parties involved in mental health to use their knowledge and expertise to develop implementable and effective solutions.
And it worked. Despite a session that was frustrating on almost every front, the legislature and Governor took real leadership on mental health, supporting the recommendations of our Action Group, reforming the system significantly, and providing over $30 million in desperately-needed new funding.
In the Information Age, a system of public policy that is based on active-experts informing passive-citizens about "what works" doesn't work. Public policy solutions (the information that groups like the Citizens League produce), must be based on the knowledge and expertise that is created by all citizens in the places where they spend time, and provide citizens an active role in implementing these solutions.
Knowledge and democracy
In order to move from information to knowledge and from experts to expertise, we'll need to develop new generations of active civic leaders. Building on the knowledge and expertise of citizens requires that all citizens have the civic identity, principles and skills necessary to govern for the common good.
We have an opportunity to create a new Civic Age that combines Information Age technology tools -- and the real interest that Minnesotans have in solving problems -- to create the new leadership and institutions that our democracy demands.
Posted by Sean Kershaw at July 13, 2007 12:49 PM