The Importance of Bad Questions

“Connection technologies, including social media, tend to devolve power from the nation state and large institutions to individuals and small institutions,” Alec J. Ross, senior innovation advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in an interview. “If governments are not engaging in social media, they are essentially ceding influence and power,” said Ross.

While I do agree wholeheartedly with Ross, I do think that government needs to cede a certain amount of power and social media is the outlet for that.  Government needs to show the ability to take a step back and say out loud, “We can’t solve everything, we don’t know everything, we need help.”  I’ve heard the cliche a million times – it takes a bigger person to admit when they need help – but I’ve yet to hear the government say so.  The open government initiatives are stepping in that direction, and all the openness trends are moving in that direction.  The barrier is who they’re opening up to, and what they let in. 

Joel Spolsky (@spolsky) talked about the importance of good questions, which lead to good answers.  His project – Stack Exchange – allows an online community of experts on various topics answer specific questions.  The process is open and democratic, where someone asks a question, people can reply with answers, and then vote on which answer is the best.  Joel did, however, stress the importance of good questions vs. bad questions, something that I think government should disagree with.  A bad question, Joel uses as an example, is “why is there a green Honda parked outside of my house?”  For the purposes of obtaining an expert answer, yes, that is a bad question.  There’s no real answer for it, there’s no real purpose behind the question.  But imagine a slightly different setting for the question – an online community forum, a community list serve, a forum where communities and politicians can interact.  Then it becomes a great-bad question: is there a safety concern with the car?  Is there a permit issue?  It opens up to discussion and opens up to a wider array of topics.  This is how government should be collaborating and opening up, with the use of ‘bad’ questions. 

My whole life, my mother has always told me, “crazy people just seem to find you, no matter where you are.”  This was true when I worked in fast food, volunteering for environmental groups, bar tending, so why would it be any different when I worked in city government?  When I worked for the City, I worked in public affairs, and somehow people found my direct line for any and all of their complaints, ideas, or just to talk for hours and hours.  People have things to say, they have ideas.  They just need someone to talk to.  And I can’t be that only person.  There needs to be a space where people can voice their thoughts and ideas, and the abilities of social media can make that.  Stack Exchange is a great place for expert questions, but I wonder if there’s a way to create a “community oriented stack exchange”, a place for “bad” questions. 

Government needs some bad ideas.  They need to know what the needs and concerns of its citizens are, but more importantly they need a method of engagement.  So far, little has worked to stimulate and bring people together with their representatives.  Social media is a vehicle which could bridge that gap.  President Obama has held Twitter town halls, a great signal of technology bringing people’s voices to government.  If there was a space which was easily accessible – via Twitter or email, a low tech solution – which could allow people to voice ideas and challenges to the government, and a space for the government to communicate back, then there wouldn’t be any “bad” ideas or questions. 

I’m of the train of thought that people should inundate government with ideas because you never know where a good idea can come from.  Granted, I may not have felt that way when I was fielding dozens of calls a day with questions that my office had no jurisdiction over, but that doesn’t mean that space shouldn’t exist.  If there was a space for people to ask questions and allow for, what Joel calls a “community of self governance”, where people can vote on their peer’s questions and answers, where people can answer their peer’s questions, where government can ask people “bad” questions, then we open up doors that are still for some reason closed. 

Collaboration between government and communities if government can admit it needs help, and communities are willing to step up and raise their voices, even if the questions are bad.

By: Asher Novek

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