An experiment: The Public Policy Wiki

by Mathew on January 15, 2009 · 9 comments

Although it is still very much in “beta” mode (and possibly even alpha), I’d like to talk about a new project that the newspaper I work for — the Globe and Mail in Toronto — has just launched along with the Dominion Institute, a project aimed at capturing some of your thoughts and ideas about a range of public policy issues. It’s called the Public Policy Wiki, and you can find it at http://policywiki.theglobeandmail.com. I mentioned it briefly on Twitter the other day, and we’ve already gotten some great input from a number of contributors.

The idea behind the wiki is simple. Public policy in Canada often develops behind closed doors, with limited (if any) input from average citizens or even knowledgable outsiders. We’d like to throw open those doors to some extent, and the wiki seemed like an interesting way of doing that. It is still very much an experiment, but we think it’s a worthwhile one. Interestingly enough, I found out just yesterday that Barack Obama is doing something similar at Change.gov called the Citizen’s Briefing Book.

Here’s how it works: We’ve chosen one important policy issue to start this experiment — the federal budget (which the Finance Minister is expected to introduce on January 27). We have background analysis and perspectives from a range of policy experts, two proposals on which you can vote or comment (one from TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond and one from Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford) and a forum where you can have your say.

Then there’s the wiki itself. We’ve prepared some “briefing notes” of the kind that federal ministers would have submitted to them in the lead-up to a budget. Each one addresses a specific policy recommendation — a tax cut, an auto-industry stimulus package, a Green Fund, a GST rebate, and so on. You can vote on each note, or you can use the wiki tools to actually edit these notes, and you can also create your own and have others contribute to it, as two contributors have already done.

Once you have had your say on the various proposals, we will pick the most popular briefing notes and submit them to the Prime Minister and other senior officials in Ottawa. For more on the details on what a wiki is and how you can can use it to contribute to the project, see the FAQ page at the site. I’d like to thank you in advance for contributing, and I’d also like to thank everyone who was involved in getting this experiment off the ground — including the team at the Globe and also Marc Chalifoux, the executive director of the Dominion Institute, for all of his help.

Why did we decide to do a wiki? For all their strengths, newspapers historically haven’t been all that good at the “two-way” information exchange, or what has become known as the “conversation.” Feedback or input from the general populace has typically been restricted to letters to the editor, “man on the street” surveys, and periodic focus groups.

The one-way nature of the newspaper business isn’t just a result of arrogance or lack of interest — it’s also a function of technology and time, and the limitations thereof. Finding people to interview on different topics isn’t an exact science, and even the most diligent journalist often misses people who might have worthwhile opinions. And public policy bodies such as the Dominion Institute face similar limitations when it comes to getting public input.

That’s why social-media or “Web 2.0” tools such as blogs, commenting systems, Twitter, Facebook and wikis are so fascinating. They dramatically lower the barriers to entry when it comes to getting input from knowledgeable (and, in some cases, not so knowledgeable) readers or interested people of all kinds. Even a single person on Twitter or Facebook can touch hundreds or even thousands of others, some of whom may have valuable viewpoints on something that a journalist is writing about (I’m @mathewi on Twitter, if you want to connect with me there).

We’re hoping the wiki will do that — and if it succeeds, we plan to use similar tools to solicit your ideas and input on a whole range of public policy and social issues, in a project we are calling the “Two Million Minds” experiment. I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to email me at mingram@globeandmail.com or send me your thoughts via Twitter or my Facebook page.

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