Ben S. suggested I draft some notes on support for deliberative processes. As my background in this area is non-existent, I haven't even tried to tie in any related work, either in computing or political science. Please feel free to criticize, attack, expand upon, etc. Pointers to relevant related work would particularly be appreciated. -harry

The change.gov website administered by then President-elect Obama's transition team during the last months of 2008 was the most
visible example to date of an emerging form of participatory democracy. Building off of established web antecedents including digg.com, change.gov allowed users to submit ideas that others could then vote upon. Popular ideas would presumably rise to the top, for
consideration by the incoming administration.

Although change.gov effectively closed with President Obama's inauguration, independent efforts continue to explore related
possibilities. Whitehouse2.gov combines user-submitted proposals that can be endorsed with cloud tags illustrating prominence of issues,
personalized talking points on priorities (based on user submissions), discussions, and tools for managing and exploring user influence on
discussions.

Whitehouse2.gov demonstrates opportunities and challenges facing broad-based discussion and deliberation efforts. Tools that support
the ability to suggest, discuss, and endorse specific policy proposals provide a basic framework for broad-based discussion and
debate of important issues. This debate might be informed by talking points and discussions can be sued to build collections of evidence in
in support of positions. Votes endorsing or opposing positions can be used to gauge the viewpoints of the community as a whole. Reputation systems that rate participants, talking points, and comments provide guidance to discussants struggling to decide who should be believed.

Informal reviews of proposals and discussions on whitehouse2.gov also plainly illustrate the challenges presented by the ambitious goal of
moving these models from "toy" discussions to meaningful frameworks for substantive discussions (Although change.gov is no longer
functioning, many of the same issues appeared to arise there as well). Questions for such systems include:

1) How can deliberative systems encourage meaningful and substantive debate? Many of the proposals and discussions on whitehouse2.gov are consistent with a political culture that has been described as being completely polarized. As participants talk use "party-line" arguments to talk past each other without documenting claims, directly refuting counter-arguments, seemingly "robust" discussion of controversial topics may in fact be mere recitations of well-known, pre-established positions.

Although it may be unreasonable for large-scale online deliberative systems to fix perceived and real shortcomings of the larger political culture, certain design possibilities might help address these concerns. Ratings of participants and posted items can already be used to downplay people or comments that do not add new understanding. These ratings might be expanded to include richer annotations in support of informed debate. For example, a "documentation?" annotation associated with a claim in a posted discussion item, might challenge the author to provide links to support documentation. Other more confrontational possibilities might include providing users with the ability to directly add annotations refuting claims from others.

Finer grains of stated positions on controversial issues might also be helpful. The initial choice between endorsing, opposing, or (implicitly) being neutral with respect to a given proposal is inherently polarizing. A more fine-grained set of options, particularly with respects to aspects of a discussion, could let people see the relative strength of conviction. Histories of viewpoints - both individually and in the aggregate - would let others see how views change. Annotations on revised opinions could be used to help participants understand how their peers had been convinced to revise their views: "Jane said this post helped convince her that her original viewpoint was ill-informed."

2) Gaming of of Priorities and Votes: Both whitehouse2.org and change.gov allow any users to make proposals. Votes on these proposals may be used to indicate perceptions of priorities: ideas that generate few votes are possibly not high on the list of anyone's concerns. Conversely, relatively high-interest levels may not be an indication of the levels of interest in or support for a given position. As illustrated by NASA's recent contest for naming a portion of the space station (won by comedian Steven Colbert - "NASA in Colbert conundrum over Space Station http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE52T5TN20090330), concerted online efforts can generate seemingly substantial support for positions that may in fact be somewhat marginal.

Weighted endorsement schemes that give greater consideration to users with reputation ratings indicative of a long history of thoughtful consideration might be used to discount electronic "ballot-stuffing". Visualizations of voting trends, including identification of voting clusters, might help participants identify votes that may be more indicative of group membership than considered opinions.

3) Evaluation of participants: The process of deciding which proposals to endorse or oppose, and which comments or discussion points might inform that decision, involves an ongoing process of evaluating materials. Just as reputation systems on sites like eBay help wary buyers and sellers decide who to do business with, reputation systems in support of deliberative discussions help participants determine the credence that should be given to various individuals or data sources.

As internally consistent evaluations of participants, these tools may add substantial value, but additional measures will be needed to strike a balance between full-disclosure of external interests that may indicate conflicts and possibilities for appropriate anonymous contributions.

Reputation systems might be designed to support open disclosure. Registration with a full name (as opposed to a pseudonym) and endorsements from other participants (based on "real-world" dealings) might improve reputation. Verifiable disclosure of financial and employment details that might pose conflicts of interest would provide additional increases in reputation. Posted opinions and comments might link to these disclosures. Support for visualization of relationship between participants (perhaps based on employment or affiliations) might be used to infer alliances behind various positions (see littlesis.org as an example effort aimed at demonstrating connections between business and government leaders).

Facilities for "outing" participants with undeclared conflicts of interest might be used to expose participants acting as shills for undeclared interests. Participants who wish to disclose relevant information about another would disclose their intentions to the alleged bad-faith actor prior to posting them publicly, allowing for rebuttal. Reputation systems would help users evaluate the relative merits of the conflict claim and rebuttal.

Anonymity will likely be a concern in evaluating participant contributions. Rewarding reputation points to those who choose to reveal their full name while participating may also be seen as discriminating against those who choose to remain anonymous. Anonymous participants might use appropriately anonymized endorsements from highly-reputable individuals to overcome these limitations.

4) Quality of sources and arguments? External sources used to support positions pose much of the same challenges of evaluation and trust
as do individual users. Ratings for sources along with comments on their trust, reliability, perspectives, and history, can all be useful.

Links to high-quality external data sources, such as the District of Columbia Data Catalog (http://data.octo.dc.gov/), the forthcoming federal data.gov, and independent efforts like those run by the sunlight labs (http://wiki.sunlightlabs.com) might be used to encourage the use of publicly-available government data sets whenever appropriate.

5) Multiple means of evaluating content/comment: Multiple streams of information about specific proposals, together with meta-information rating relevant individuals and data sources, present significant challenges in usability. Desining universally usable interfaces for exploring and interpreting these data sets will be a substantial challenge.

6) Evolution of ideas and discussion: Debate and discussion will need to evolution of views and specific proposals. Appropriate tools for coordinating this evolution - particularly as, for example, related proposals merge or diverge - investigating histories, and summarizing discussions will be needed.

7) How representative are the results? Given the likelihood that only a small minority of citizens will engage in such deliberations, any outcomes should not be oversold. When available, demographic information might be used to demonstrate a range of diverse voices taking a given position.

Some Government websites that address challenges and obstacles in greater government use of social media and related websites:

Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government : A White Paper Written for the 2008 – 2009 Presidential Transition Team
by the Federal Web Managers Council

Social Media and the Federal Government: Perceived and Real Barriers and Potential Solutions

Social Media and Web 2.0 in Government