Saturday, October 17, 2009

Technology, Politics, and Pumpkin Pie

For several years now, I have occasionally talked about the International Working Group on Online Consultation and Public Policy Making. As we have traveled from Harvard to Leeds and other locations on both sides of the Atlantic, this group of researchers has produced a body of work addressing the following basic questions: How do we judge what constitutes a successful government e-consultation? What standards of evaluation can and should we use to determine the extent to which digital consultations with individual citizens and organized interests have achieved their democratic purposes?

This past week, the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany (State University of New York), which provided primary funding for our group and two others like it, hosted members in what was billed as a "reflection." Here are some of the lessons our group took away from this collective experience in doing research that is international and multidisciplinary...

Institutional support is absolutely vital to creating and sustaining such research partnerships. Although we would like to say that we will all continue to work closely together, such ongoing collaboration is unlikely to occur in more than an ad hoc way in the absence of regularly scheduled (and funded!) meetings.

Group members have to be flexible when working with a dozen and a half other researchers. We all came into this particular project with already established research agendas. Such preexisting commitments meant that the journal issue we published and the book volume we are producing not only affected how we as individuals allocated our time, but also were shaped by the ongoing projects we brought to the table. Our initial idea that we would come together and launch a single, new study was quickly abandoned in favor of a less cohesive, but more feasible approach of writing separate articles on the same basic topic.

Group members have to be willing to bear costs for their involvement in this type of collaborative project. For our international colleagues, this cost literally was financial, as the National Science Foundation (which is underwriting the Center for Technology in Government's initiative) does not support researchers who do not reside in the United States. In addition, many group members expressed that this type of scholarship, no matter how well-executed and well-received it might be, is not highly valued by department chairs and deans, the university administrators who wield power over promotions and annual raises, in that it does not result in publications in leading, discipline-specific journals.

The group's "soft" outcomes are perhaps at least as valuable as the publication of a journal article and book chapter. A number of group members expressed the expectation that they will continue to work with, or at least stay in touch with, one another on shared research interests. Participation in the working group, in other words, opened up the possibility of sustained communication between subsets of members.

Every group member affirmed that they would do it again if given the chance. Whatever the difficulties inherent in getting involved with such a project, members uniformly expressed the notion that it is this kind of non-linearity that can make life as an academic researcher personally rewarding, for graduate students as well as junior and senior faculty members.


PS: Speaking of personal rewards, that's Scott Wright, a British researcher, fulfilling his goal of eating pumpkin pie for the first time ever.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On The Great Contest Of Ideas

George W. Bush, love him or hate him, has had a profound influence over the world in which we live in. One, admittedly insignificant, indicator of this influence is the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama for essentially being "not George W. Bush."

The United States and the world will be grappling with the implications of the Bush and Obama presidencies for years, if not decades, to come. As the first two administrations called upon to react to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Panic of 2008, these contrasting world views are essentially competing with one another on everything from markets v. regulation to unilateralism v. multilateralism.

Five former members of the Norwegian Parliament have weighed in with their sentiments on this competition, stating that thanks to the efforts of Obama, "Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened."

In recognition of just how contested this premise is at the moment, here are the reactions of a few Chinese activists and dissidents...

"For nearly all of my friends, their first reaction was that they were very, very disappointed. They thought this is a major setback for human rights." (James B. Chen)

"The Nobel Peace Prize committee has the full right to decide to give coal to those who suffer and struggle or to present flowers to the powerful. It is both a pity for the Chinese people and a danger to world peace." (Huang Ciping)