Last week I attended Masters of Networks , an event that analyzed how a greater understanding of networks can be used to make better policies, especially in the digital era. Many questions built in policy making both from the procedural and substantive perspective involve networks dynamics:
- How does information spread?
- Who participates in decision making?
- How do we collect evidence?
- Who influences behavior change?
Alberto Cottica , the mastermind behind the event, had a vision of putting two groups of people who traditionally don’t mingle much in the same room – policy makers and network scientists – to see what emerges as a result. Policy makers presented a variety of policy problems, and network scientists helped better frame the problems and address them through applying principles from network theory.
I had the privilege of presenting my perspective of what policy making in the digital era looks like (slides will be put on Slideshare soon). I will summarize below the main points from my intervention, but, more interestingly, reflect on feedback from the group.
My presentation consisted of three elements:
1. I started where all policy starts – with a user who has a problem. I used the interview with the Mayor of Calgary  to make this point, since he makes two critical arguments (at around 2 minutes into the interview): one, that the best expert in public transport is the person who takes the bus every day, and two, that social media allows him to have a dialogue with her in order to get both evidence for better policy making and feedback on running that policy.
2. I then tried to argue that this ability to engage citizens in a two- way discussion holds three opportunities for policy making.
- Rapid feedback loops: It provides an opportunity for having rapid feedback loops in order to gain real-time awareness of what the problems are and how are they being addressed. (See this example  from India.)
- Perpetual prototyping: It creates an environment where policy makers can shift from long-term planning and strategy making into pushing out to the public low cost, high speed working version of policies  and continuously improving on them.
- Loose networks: Social network conversations and increasing volumes of data generated from ‘the internet of things’  allows policy makers to monitor various loose networks of citizens, analyze patterns of consumption, mobility, or social activity that could lead to better understanding of early warning signs of various socio-economic or political stresses and coping mechanisms (the UN Global Pulse  is leading the way on this).
3. My final point focused on some challenges that policy makers face in coming to terms with all things digital and the discussion that followed went into more detail into some or all of these:
- How do we balance participation and representation? In other words, online engagement is but one type of participation that is not representative of the wider society and government shouldn’t cater to smartphone users alone. Cathrine Howe  is working on a fascinating doctoral research at the University of Sussex, where she is interested in exactly this topic – what is the social impact of Web 2.0 tools in a democratic context, how and why do people get engaged in civic action and how does that engagement change over time.
- How can we scale many-to-many conversations in order to maintain participation? In short, as volume of discussions on line increases so does a cost to any one individual to stay engaged in any given conversation. Fixing this, Alberto Cottica argues , will make the government smarter and democracy stronger (see also the recently published Handbook  from the Edgeryders project).
- What is the optimal time for hitting a ‘refresh’ button on a policy? Stefano Bertolo  of European Commission pointed out that taking a year, start-to-finish, to create and roll out a policy may be too long. But hitting a refresh button after a week or two may be inadequate since some policies may take longer to show whether or not they are working.
- What proficiencies are necessary to engage and turn the digital input into a workable policy solution? The Democratic Society represented at the event by the director Anthony Zacharzewski, has a great initiative  out where citizens vote on what are the most important skills for open policy making. I would simple add that in addition to engaging meaningfully, which is likely to answer the why-is-something-happening, an enduring challenge is likely to be how to turn that into a workable what-we-will-do-about-it answer.
- How do we differentiate between a credible input and intent to manipulate or trick the system? Some (mainly colleagues with the economic background) felt that when citizens know they’re being ‘watched’ (e.g. knowing that a local administration uses information from Facebook or Twitter for policy making), they have an incentive to manipulate with their input.
- This is a fair statement in some respects. In the high speed environment of emergency management, the ability to assess one message as a credible over another can mean a difference between life and death (for the latest on this topic, Patrick Meier’s post  is a great resource). But in the mainstream policy making, my sense is that the sheer volume of digital conversations will marginalize those outliers (e.g. those who have an interest for whatever reason to game the system). This can be useful for spotting trends and patterns never for identifying ready-made solutions to issues.
In the end, I remain a believer that social media is and will continue to transform public policy as it provides the most dynamic source of human behavior evidence that continues to grow in real time.
Understanding how to leverage digital participation with network dynamics – how do nudge people to bike versus drive cars, how do dampen a violent event, how to encourage volunteerism – has potential to bring about long lasting social change.
This post first appeard on Voices from Eurasia 
Image courtesy of bplanet/FreeDigitalPhotos.net