An experiment: The Public Policy Wiki

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.

9 thoughts on “An experiment: The Public Policy Wiki

  1. That's an excellent idea, although in my experience, wikis take a whole lot of time to promote and get people to participate. It's almost like arm-twisting. It's one more thing to log into, it's one more source of information to keep track of. You can't just build it and hope they will come.

    But I hope they do come, and I hope you guys promote the hell out of it. It's a great idea.

    • Thanks, Suzanne — you are quite right about the need to promote and educate in order to get people to take part in wikis, although I think they have become much more mainstream thanks to people's familiarity with Wikipedia.

      I've been pleased to see that with only a few mentions on Twitter, we are already getting a lot of really engaged users, who have started creating and contributing some really high-quality content.

      Thanks for the comment — I think your blog is quite good, by the way.

  2. If Wikipedia and its ilk are providing the informational tools for a renaissance in human thought, and If it is true, as I believe it is, that all knowledge that is accepted as fact invites us inevitably to draw conclusions and form opinions, then it stands to reason this historically recent deluge of information that we accept as factual is providing the basis for an entirely new set of conclusions. In other words, if collaborative knowledge is where we are now, collaborative opinion is where we are almost certainly heading. This may not be entirely a good thing, as it will still be directed by the perspective of the majority, but I think the next stage, as evidenced by public policy wikis such as the one undertaken by your employer, will begin to shift certain notions that might now considered as opinion to be considered by certain communities as fact. We'll just need to be careful that these crystallized instruments of opinion are used as tools rather than weapons.

  3. Pingback: Morning Links: January 20, 2009 » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  4. I've been asked to investigate policywikis by someone looking to set one up for Northern Ireland, and eventually for the British Isles as a whole so I'm interested to see how you guys get on. Would you be looking in the long run to involve legislators in this too, perhaps in the form of them making use of the material for ideas for parliamentary questions, select committees etc? And how do you see yourselves promoting this PolicyWiki to members of the public that might be happy to use computers now and then but might not hang around those sites where this initiative might be discussed or mentioned?

    (Oh, and what wiki package are you using for this!)

    • Thanks for the interest, Stuart. Ideally, yes, we would like to get legislators involved as well, even passively — although we haven't (as yet) made any active effort to get them to do so.

      As far as getting the word out, we're relying on the newspaper itself to do that, as well as word-of-mouth spreading in groups of interested individuals related to policy etc.

      And the wiki is TikiWiki — very flexible. We're using about one-tenth of its features.

  5. I've been asked to investigate policywikis by someone looking to set one up for Northern Ireland, and eventually for the British Isles as a whole so I'm interested to see how you guys get on. Would you be looking in the long run to involve legislators in this too, perhaps in the form of them making use of the material for ideas for parliamentary questions, select committees etc? And how do you see yourselves promoting this PolicyWiki to members of the public that might be happy to use computers now and then but might not hang around those sites where this initiative might be discussed or mentioned?

    (Oh, and what wiki package are you using for this!)

  6. Thanks for the interest, Stuart. Ideally, yes, we would like to get legislators involved as well, even passively — although we haven't (as yet) made any active effort to get them to do so.

    As far as getting the word out, we're relying on the newspaper itself to do that, as well as word-of-mouth spreading in groups of interested individuals related to policy etc.

    And the wiki is TikiWiki — very flexible. We're using about one-tenth of its features.

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