Posted by: Paul Hewitt | January 1, 2010

Tories to Pay Dearly for Common Knowledge

“Maybe the Tories are so out of touch they don’t know what’s out there, but they shouldn’t waste £1m of public money reinventing the wheel.” – Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrats’ spokeswoman.

On Wednesday, December 30, the reported that the Tories announced a new offer to pay £1m for the development of an online platform to harness the “wisdom of the British crowd” to solve problems related to British governance.  Recognizing that the collective knowledge of the British people is much greater than that of a “bunch of politicians”, the Tories believe that such a platform will generate solutions to vexing problems.  If it works, the “winning” entry will receive the payout.  However, it isn’t quite clear what needs to be developed in order to win.

Based on the few “starter” problems that might be addressed by the new platform, it appears that they are looking for an idea pageant.  But these are readily available, now.  Hence, the reinventing the wheel comment.  Perhaps the Tories think it needs to be large enough to accomodate all British citizens – it doesn’t.  Once you have a crowd, a bigger one isn’t much better.  The Tories show their lack of understanding about how information aggregation markets work.  They require incentives for participants to reveal their private information.  Maybe most of the funds should be devoted to rewarding those that come up with the winning ideas and those that recognize (and bet on) a good idea when they see one. 

While it may sound a bit wacky at first, there is a lot of potential.  It is sure to generate more good ideas than are being developed by the government on its own.  Without having to pay exorbitant consulting fees to generate garbage ideas, it is sure to be cheaper than their current problem solving process.  Over time, the idea market will come to recognize the top idea creators and those who are able to recognize them.  Maybe these people could form a future, wiser government? 

At least they could operate a legal, real-money, betting market if they choose to go that route.  A caution:  even if the idea pageant (or idea market) works, it will be up to some intelligent life form within the government to make sure that good ideas don’t go to waste through bad implementation. 

Two final points.  One, this will not be an example of public prediction markets.  It will be an example of information aggregation, but there is no prediction involved.  Two, it is, perhaps, the best possible use of an information aggregation framework for helping governments improve their decision-making.  In my next post (or two), I will turn my attention to the other information aggregation framework for good governance, the “retarded” futarchy of Robin Hanson.


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