Technology is essential for legitimate democracy

Steffie Verstappen
Article by: Steffie Verstappen
Technology is essential for legitimate democracy

This is a discussion of the book "Wiki Government: How technology can make government better, democracy stronger, and citizens more powerful" by Beth Simone Noveck (Brookings Institution Press: 2009).


At THNK, we aim to develop a generic design approach that may be applied to the smaller, but surely also to the big and bold challenges of our time. Rethinking of democracy scores high on our list. For example, in our THNKLab “Design Democracy” at the PICNIC ’10 Festival, radical collaboration in our greenhouse focused on the systemic crisis in the current Dutch parliamentary democracy. The solutions that the teams came up with generally shared a focus on raising the level of citizen engagement with and their influence on politics. Almost all suggested solutions made use of the latest mobile phone and Internet applications. In this regard, Brookings Institution’s Beth Noveck’s book on Wiki Government resonates well with this perspective. Read a short summary below.


This book by Brookings Institution’s Beth Simone Noveck starts from a new vision of governance in the digital age—collaborative democracy. She combines solid theory with practical know-how to show how innovation can be fostered in government by using technology. One of the primary drivers behind her book is the conviction that, in our day and age, good ideas can come from anywhere. Hence, policy makers should explore new and untraditional avenues to gain access to these ideas in order to help deliver more effective and efficient government.


In her book, Noveck draws on her experience in creating “Peer-to-Patent”, which is the first United States federal government’s social networking initiative. Peer-to-Patent was launched in 2007 to connect patent examiners to volunteer scientists and technologists via the web. Patent examiners are the government officials charged with deciding on patent applications—a task which has reverberating impact on pioneering start-ups in new industries. Traditionally, patent examiners have worked in secret, largely cut off from essential information, while pressed for time to rule on lengthy, technical claims. Peer-to-Patent discontinued this isolation by creating online networks of citizen experts that make their knowledge available in a way that is easy for patent examiners to use.


Alas, Peer-to-Patent serves as a great example of how technology can connect the expertise of the many to the power of the few. It shows how technology can make government both more open and more effective at solving today’s complex social and economic problems by encouraging, coordinating, and structuring citizen participation. Needless to say, this model for innovating government is applicable to a wide variety of settings and offers a fundamental rethinking of effective governance and democratic legitimacy in the 21st century.

To discover and develop solutions for the big and bold challenges of our time, join the THNK Creative Leadership Program. Visit the program page to find out if you qualify or contact us at