The National Dialogue: What Happens When Government Agencies Create an Illusion of Meritocracy

I have received at least 10 emails suggesting participation in “the National Dialogue”, a companion to the Web site designed to “discover” technology solutions to achieve transparency. Tonight I finally was able to visit the site and contributed 3 “ideas”. How frustrating.
Here is why.

First, let me underscore that outreach is an admirable goal that is central to the transformation of government. In general, electronic participation done right, is powerful. But “the national dialogue” creates an “illusion of meritocracy” that will ultimately discourage participation because it is not credible. Why?

Remember that every electronic outreach based on networking begins with a promise and sets expectations for the audience. What promises does the National Dialogue make to its users, and its intended audience?

Consider, Flight 93 Memorial Project.

Let’s contrast “The National Dialogue” with the design process for the Flight 93 Memorial – an international outreach (supported and managed electronically). Like “the National Dialogue”, the memorial process promised fair consideration and choices based on merit. Here is how the process worked.

Step 1: Over 1000 alternative design ideas captured electronically from firms located all over the world. Each idea described in multiple forms of media: Narratives, documents, images, powerpoints, pdf , audio, and image files, etc., Ideas first collected independently over a defined period of time.

Step 2: Aggregation for public comment. After collection, the 1000 design ideas were simultaneously exposed to public comment, and also concurrently, by state, local and federal agencies and committees for design and the families. Public comment included not only rating, but also, the ability of the citizen public and private stakeholders to contribute narrative.

Step 3: After vetting by the public and internal working groups, the 1000 design ideas were narrowed to 5 solution possibilities. At that time, the final designs were exposed to a meritocracy system that led to final design selection. The final design took into consideration public comments.

The outcome was that people felt involved. Contributors of design alternatives, many developed at great expense, felt that they received a fair consideration. Controversy for selection was minimal. Promises of participation (supported electronically) were kept.

The National Dialogue, How We Inadvertently Create Illusion.

In contrast to the thoughtful process of Flight 93 (managed by the National Park Service), the National Dialogue creates an illusion of meritocracy. It enables contribution of ideas, shows the 3 most recent at a time, and simultaneously asks for quantitative ratings. Does this really lead to true identification of “the best” ideas based on merit? No. Why?

First, “new entrants” do not receive fair consideration. Depending on when ideas are posted, they have comparatively less exposure than earlier ideas. Also, they are only exposed for 10 or 15 minutes as new ideas. Most ideas never see the light of day – regardless of merit.

Second, it is not credible to suggest that an audience will choose between 53 pages of ideas. No-one has that amount of social attention. Contrast that with Flight 93 which put all ideas on the same footing in the original submission, provided vetting based on qualitative narrative, and then exposed the five final choices in an electronic alternative analysis.

The National Dialogue is an example of what can happen when technology takes precedence over reasoned process (which can and should be reflected in electronic participation).In fact it is does not fulfill the promise of meritocracy.

Keeping the promise of meritorious selection

Imagine if the National Dialogue first enabled submission of ideas with examples on an equal basis. Then it enabled a simultaneous consideration with an ability of public comment. Then the ideas were vetted based on the public comment received. And finally, the final ideas were then submitted with an alternative analysis based on meritocracy. The final ideas could credibly be considered by the broader audience, based on merit.

The point once again, is that illusions, or promises not delivered, often create disillusion. Once lost, it will be difficult to gain the participation of citizens or other stakeholders if this practice is followed by other federal agencies without an architecture designed to truly promote meritocracy, recognition, and reward.

The National Dialogue in its current form is an example of a very well intended effort, that if followed will lead to illusion and disillusion by stakeholders. This is an example that agencies should be very cautious before replicating. The process could be supported in a much more credible way. Much more like the Flight 93 memorial process, a project where promises of decisions based on merit were made and kept.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply Engage!

Good Conversation here:

Please remember, President Obama’s strategy has been more than support of Leadership with Integrity, Transparency & two-way Communications.
There has been a much speculation & frustration in the News Corps over the Brick Wall of the Obama Biden Administration with respect to News Reporter’s inability to push the Obama Biden Administration around like an Sports Player in an Hockey Ring.

Presiden Obama’s Career M.O. has always been to work from the Grassroots, not necessarily as described above.

With is in mind, perhaps more value could be added to Community & Social Networking using 2.0 & an combination of incentive supports that have nothing to do with money & more to do with Active participation in an Working Constitutional Democracy.

Sincere Regards,
Deborah Kayatani
Democracy Work
Eradicating the At-Risk Profile Nationwide

Christoph Berendes

Kim – I agree that the National Dialogue effort could be improved. You’re exactly right that there are – mostly implicit but still powerful – promises for the Government to keep in this effort and that breaking those promises will sow disillusion.

You suggest that the Digg-like approach creates an illusion of meritocracy. I’d go further: Digg is an at best incomplete and at worst misleading model for their effort.

Digg supports horizontal and symmetrical interaction (link posting, voting, comments) among more or less equal participants. is, instead, substantially about vertical and asymmetrical communication from people offering proposals for IT to the (largely invisible) IT staff. It’s more of a suggestion box, with participant interaction thrown in. I think the asymmetry is inherent and reasonable, but it’s dangerous not to take it into account, publicly and explicitly, when designing the discussion process.

The good news: could still strengthen their current effort by (a) making their process of reviewing ideas transparent (rather than offline and out of sight), (b) clarifying what people who have offered ideas can expect in the way of review and response, and (c) building continuity with the Dialogues to come. I’ve laid this out in a blog post that uses Clay Shirky’s framework of Promise, Tool, Bargain.