Open-source policy formulation for Sri Lanka’s capital

Sept 12, 2011 (LBO) – Encoded computer instructions, usually modifiable, are known as software. Software is complex. One set of instructions can contradict another, and cause the whole thing to freeze, or work differently from what was intended.

These bad outcomes are said to be caused by “bugs.” Debugging is a major part of software development.
One approach to debugging is exemplified by Microsoft. It is an enormous organization with brilliant software engineers, some who write code and others who debug what has been written. Another approach was pioneered by Linus Torvalds, the originator of Linux. His statement “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” is called Linus’s Law by some, and exemplifies the alternative open-source approach.

Torvalds was a brilliant software developer. He wrote the first version of Linux and put it out to the community along with the source code. They looked for the bugs and fixed them. He converted users into co-developers. It is generally accepted that open-source software works better because it is less buggy.

Relevance to policy

Blue-sky policy formulation never works. One does need abstract concepts and specialized knowledge for good policy, but the best policy melds specialized knowledge and concrete facts about the problem that is to be solved. There is never a “best” policy for all circumstances; the best policy is what fits the circumstances best.

Policy making also involves complexity. Concrete conditions are always complex. Problems interact with each other. Policy solutions interact with each other. Unintended consequences are common.

Here lies the commonality with software. A key challenge in policy formulation is the avoidance of bugs, of incompatibilities with circumstance and other policies.

The traditional approach is to rely on expertise. Experts formulate policy. Other experts debug it. Not very different from what goes on at the Redmond Campus of Microsoft.

What if the process was opened up? What if draft policies are made available to potential “users,” the people who would benefit from them? Will they cease to be passive objects of policy and convert themselves into co-developers of policy?

Open-source policy in the Colombo mayoral campaign

Open-source policy formulation has been adopted by the Milinda for Mayor Campaign. A draft policy platform was presented early in the campaign. Comments and suggestions are being actively solicited through face-to-face meetings and through new media. A revised document reflecting the process will be published a week or so before the election.

The test was whether the suggestions would come; whether a jaded electorate would yawn and turn the page. The first week suggests otherwise. Suggestions and comments are coming thick and fast.

An educator from Wadduwa has told the candidate what kinds of information should be easily available to people interacting with government. The suggestion was about registration of births (a matter outside the remit of the CMC) but still very useful for the design of the e government services being planned for the new CMC. And makes us think about a “no-door-is wrong” seamless approach to government services.

The rights and obligations of three-wheeler taxis are being debated, including fears of being banned from the city. A knowledgeable journalist has written an entire column about solutions to the traffic problem in Colombo. He, like other commenters on ourcmb.com, is a fan of rapid transit, a subject mentioned in the draft policy platform in terms of commencing studies in collaboration with relevant authorities.

Rapid transit, in the first instance, serves suburbanites with business in the city, thus requiring a region-wide approach. It is very costly and thus requires mobilization of expertise. There is a promise, in another newspaper, by one of Sri Lanka’s leading transport experts that he will publish an article on what the Mayor of Colombo should know about urban transport.

No comments yet on a topic fully within the remit of the CMC: the organization of a circulator bus service within city limits with simplified fares (included in the draft policy platform). But we hope that will draw the attention of the co-developers as well.

People are beginning to discuss the pros and cons of removing plant sellers from the city’s premier park. Attention is being sought for the children’s playground equipment at Vihara Maha Devi Park and elsewhere (in the draft policy platform). Others are making proposals for municipal bonds and other ways of financing the work that all agree needs to be done.

Elections as “engagable moments”

People have many demands on their time and attention. It is only during elections that public affairs rise on their agendas.

Yet, effective policy formulation and implementation requires active citizen engagement. Milinda Moragoda’s open-source approach appears to have engaged the citizens. People are discussing substance in addition to the usual horse-race aspects of Sri Lanka’s second national pastime.

The challenge will be to hold that engagement and mobilize it productively to solve the many problems facing the citizens of Colombo. A much improved policy platform that incorporates their views will be a good foundation. Rohan Samarajiva is at present a policy advisor to Milinda Moragoda in his mayoral campaign.