What If We Applied Open Innovation to Government Funded Lobbying?

by Evan Shellshear

Capitol HillI know, you are asking “government funded what”? But let’s stop for a second and look at political processes. Very roughly one can say that it is votes or money that matter. On the money side there’s not much the average Joe can do. For example, Michael Bloomberg has personally contributed more than $20 million to political campaigns and the American Chamber of Commerce has spent over $1 billion dollars lobbying the government. Even if you can vote, with money like this, how is anyone else supposed to have a say in our democracy? One way is for the government to pay to lobby itself to represent small and collectively weak groups.

The basis for this claim is based on the well-known problem of ‘‘Collective Action’’. This concept was developed by Olson in his seminal work ‘‘The Logic of Collective Action – Public Goods and the Theory of Groups’’. It implies that despite small groups being able to further their interest much more easily than large ones, they will tend to devote too few resources to the satisfaction of their common interests, i.e. their interests will not be represented enough at the government level by mutual lobbying and other activities.

The benefits of better representation for less well-organized and cohesive groups can be significant. An example of this occurred in Indonesia where the government moved away from merely representing commercial interests and executing centralized government decisions to a more decentralized process. This decision opened up more autonomy for each regent and, for those regencies that exploited this to become more inclusive, the results were compelling. One such regency, Bojonegoro, went from a regent with the highest levels of corruption to one of the ten best regencies. But how?

In 2010, Bupati Suyoto was elected to power in the Bojonegoro regency without garnering support from the established interest groups. He had no money or budget for his election so he was forced to win the election the old fashioned way; on foot and listening to the people. Even after his win he continued listening to the people by allowing his electors to SMS him about issues that concerned them. His government managed to curb corruption, improve the economic standing of the people and continually be re-elected. By involving the people more, Bupati was able to significantly improve their situation.

Even if we ignore such examples, it is easy to be convinced of the the faceless masses’ innovative power. Right now this innovative potential is already being tapped via numerous open innovation programs such as NineSigma, InnoCentive, etc. Companies such as P&G, GSK, etc, are taking great advantage of this via open innovation portals. So given that we now recognize the power of the individual, why not also give them a lobbying voice in Congress to improve that too?

If we agree that this could be a good thing, then how would such a group work? And what would its interaction be with the people it represents?  A simple way for such a system to serve its members would be to use basic open innovation principles and these are based on crowdsourcing. I.e. let the crowd (people or small businesses) generate the ideas and then also vote on them! This would determine which issues gain the most lobbying support and are then taken to Capitol Hill.

Despite the benefits, it can also be argued that such government funded lobbying is unnecessary. One could point to the concept of Slacktivism. Slacktivism can be seen as a way of showing support for a cause by exerting minimal personal effort. Given most people’s busy schedules this is an effective way to aid participation. One can achieve this via launching campaigns with internet based tools such as Facebook and attempt to go viral. This allows people to simply sign up online and follow the progress of a lobbying movement without any active involvement.

So if we have Facebook and other social networks to provide lobbying platforms for the masses, is there still a need for government funded lobbying? Well for internet savvy individuals it seems potentially unnecessary, however, for smaller businesses fighting against incumbents or individuals without the know-how, this could be their ticket to leveling the playing field.  Open innovation shows us the innovative power of those who don’t have the loudest voice, so by giving certain poorly represented groups a voice, maybe a seemingly counterintuitive idea might just benefit all of us.

image credit: Tony Brooks, Flickr

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Evan Shellshear is a technology and software expert working as the Point Cloud Manager at the Fraunhofer-Chalmers Centre in Sweden. His work focuses on turning cutting-edge research into successful industrial solutions across numerous industries. Connect with him @eshellshear