A "virtual round table" to help institutions and citizens discuss

Hi all,

(I’ve already posted this content to another mission… I hope this is not spam!!!)

a week ago I launched Opinionage.com (public beta) which is an open, web, social platform. Think to Opinionage like a “round table”  helping  “decision makers”,  “opinion stakeholders” and “observers” vote and discuss about specific themes.

I don’t want to bother you explaining exactly how it works and how cool the features are (if you’re interested to go in deeper details, there’s 60 sec. intro video in homepage), but I think it can be a very interesting tool to support democracy.

In fact it can help break down barriers between “public institutions” and citizens in a win-win scenario: public administrators  at any level (ie mayors or  assessors) can start a public debate, engage and listen their audience. Citizens can discuss and gain the visibility of the decision maker. Observers (ie citizens, press or institutions) can follow the discussions.

But technology is only a small piece of the story: real benefits just come from real contents and people…

So, I need your help experiment the platform on real cases (cities, universities, european institutions) on public debates.

Any question, feedback or suggestion is really welcome… please don’t hesitate!


Carlo Alberto

Feedback? Coming!

Hello Carlo Alberto, thanks for sharing this! I am Alberto (more on me), and I  also am passionate about collaborating with institutions on governance issues.

First of all, a technical question. You posted this report twice. Nothing wrong with it, but it might fragment the conversation on your post. If I were you, I would unpublish one of the two (or we can do it for you). Also, are you sure you want it to be in the “Open government” mission? In my view this is more a Hacking for change, though it is not really important.

In my next comment I will come to opinionage itself.



Hi Alberto,

thanks a lot for  any comment/suggestion.

Sorry for the double posting… I still don’t know how the platform exactly works (I thought missions were sealed compartments!). I can try to delete it myself…

Yes, maybe “Hacking for change” is a more suitable place… :smiley:

Thanks a lot for your patience!!

Feedback is ready!

So, Carlo, here I am again. I browsed briefly opinionage (and even took part in one of the voting arenas) to get a feel for it. It is very professional and smooth-running, congratulations!

However, are you sure you wanted to build an instrument for political participation? The framing of “choose A or B”, in fact, lends itself to all sort of stuff, and not just public decision: marketing polls (select the voice for our video), prediction markets (is the price of gold going to go up or down?), playful interaction (which dress should I wear to the party?).

In my understanding, public decisions are made in the context of administrative processes. Think of administrative processes as computer programmes: they call subroutines that run and move the process forward. For example, “decide the priorities for vocational training in Friuli” could be a subroutine of the master programme “7 year Framework Programme of the European Commission”, to which many administrative levels, from the European to at least the regional one are called to contribute over several years.

Given all this, you need a lot of sheer luck for a decision maker to stumble into citizen input that fits exactly the decision she has to make, exactly at the right time. Normally this will just not happen: citizen input will accumulate and, typically, lie unused. At this point, citizens will become disillusioned and impatient, and leave the process.

Perhaps the only way to solve this is for an institution to adopt opinionage as its own tool, and push out exactly those questions that they are addressing at the moment. This would make it open government, something that at the moment opinionage is not (open government, after all, is still government, and as such requires public sector protagonism). Should you decide to frame it this way, I would suggest you consider a few improvements. First of all, there is the issue that some administrations are not at ease with software-as-service. And rightly so: if civil servants engage with citizens during their working hours, it is only fair that the institution owns the database where those interaction are recorded.

Second of  all, in my experience most administrations are intimidated by citizen engagement, which can be quite aggressive, and look for mechanisms to steer the social dynamics towards constructive outcomes. The core social dynamic of opinionage, unfortunately, is “for or against”, which by definition tends to polarization rather than convergence!

Got it


thanks a lot for your time, your feedback and the remarks about look&feel and smooth-running! I appreciate them a lot…

Let me say few things about Opinionage just before answering to your notes :smiley:

  1. Opinionage is a work-in-progress project (we’re a very early beta version). It means that features are strongly evolving almost on a bi-weekly basis. Reactions and expectations from our user-base are driving our development. As an example, in the next few days we’ll clarify different roles played by users discussing a topic (ie who’s the decision maker, who’s following the discussion and so on…). We’ll introduce the concept of “featured topic”, real-time notifications, etc etc

  2. some of the contents are just “topic tests” posted by our user-base, some others are a little bit misleading (they’re no more than polls). But we’ve decided to keep the database as it is.

Back to your questions:

  1. I know we can be a general purpose tool. But we’ve decided to play as a “changing world tool”, at least at this stage (it’s a matter of strategy)

2. Yes, you’re perfectly right: the current chance that users fit exactly a “decision/timing” is extremely low (or perhaps null!). But this is only one side of the medal (the only visible one, just now!). As I mentioned you before, we’re working on  “featured topics”: with Opinionage you will be able handle two different kind of processes: bottom-up or top-down: bottom-up are topics posted by citizens (exactly the ones you can see now). Top-down are opened by “decision-makers”… so by politicians (exactly what you suggested: “…push out exactly those questions that they are addressing at the moment”).

  1. I know many organizations are reluctant to SaaS, but I’m not thinking to give the software “in-house”. Think to Opinionage just like Google or Facebook: would you put them in-house? Of course no, because the power just comes from inter-connected services.

  2. To partially solve the “ownership issues”, we’ll release a set of API. Users will be able to access public data (our promise is: free service and public data access for people and no-profit organizations).

(About the two points above: technically speaking we’ll provide “state-of-the-art” features… So, only bigger cities or institutions would be able to manage that complexity… I don’t like the idea to serve only these ones!)

  1. Yes, you’re right. Administrations are intimidated by citizens (at least in Italy). My personal experience in USA is just a little bit different…and I hope it will change in the really next future (furthermore tools like Opinionage should offer tools to moderate the discussion, social control and so on)

  2. The polarization is just the “label of the topic”, then you can modulate your thoughts by posting comments and animating the debate. We decided to give just only two options because (unfortunately) the world is becoming more and more shallow… and simple claims (Oxford style: 2 alternatives) allows a simpler/easier broad communication. Then how constructive/destructive you’re, it depends on how/when/where/who/why pose topics. But this is exactly what in the real life happens!!!

Thanks again!



The jury is out

Well, Carlo, this is still a pretty new field, and your guess is just as good as mine. Forecasting anything feels practically impossible, at least to me, and the path you suggest is well worth trying.

My own path (though probably wrong, given my already admitted inability to make forecasts), however, is quite different: small, dedicated tools, with full ownership and control of the database, and codebase evolved firmly in the public domain (open, free, etc.). In case you want to challenge it, here is a full explanation.

We converge…


thanks for your reply… I think we’re not so far each other, because 1) I’m not a whiz kid too and  2) Opinionage is a small and dedicated tool…(it’s just a “round table”) 3) we share data (they’re not “sealed”)

Btw I’m an open-source contributor too…(software & books) and I’ve read your post: yes, at the beginning I was totally convinced, but in the last years I’d some (bad) experiences that partially changed/articulated my opinion. But this is off-topic… :wink:

Right conversation, wrong place?

Maybe we can move this discussion over to the blog, then. Interested about the bad experiences…

A bit of further feedback

Hello Carlo Alberto,

Thank you for sharing Opinionage with us and we have the opportunity to try it out! I just tried Opinionage and I took part in two - three votings to see how it works.

I found it a nice idea but I didnt get how this would really influence people in order to make a change. Of course you use it as a tool of sharing ideas and “measuring” the general feeling on the topic, but I can’t see it as an influencer tool itself. Maybe as you have already mentioned on your report it is still a Beta version and it will be more evaluated.

I believe that in some topics as the “economy” (e.g “Is Germany speculating on the Euro crisis”) you can never choose between answer 1 and answer 2. There are always more things to discuss and in situations like the economic crisis there isn’t just Black or White.

I think that it has a great potential and it is a helpful mean of sharing opinions, but maybe it will be better to integrate it in something “bigger” behind it, in order to actually happen all these impactfull voting and ideas!

I am really looking forward to hearing more news about this initiative!



Chara thanks a lot for your time and feedback!

I try to answer your remarks:

  1. Opinionage is still a very early stage “beta” (purists could call it “alpha”): it means we’ve a roadmap of features we smoothly release on a pseudo-regular basis (bi-weekly). It helps us better understanding what’s wrong and what’s good. I hope it will be a little more effective/understandable how we try to solve the problem you mention when we introduce the concept of roles. Think of Opinionage as a “round table” where you can sit “decision makers”, “opinion stakeholders” and “observers”. Try to imagine to be able to post topics “top-down” (ie the mayor of the city addressing the citizens) or “bottom-up” (citizens voting a “spontaneous topic” asking for the attention of the mayor)… and imagine you can invite people, journalists or institutions to join/observe the discussion… Then people can talk, discuss, articulate their thoughts… and be voted. If topic is “featured” people  could also win something… just like making a propose to “decision maker”, ask a question or partecipate to something… and much much more…

  2. Yes, I know that giving just 2 options seems to be too polarizing/hard to choose. But I think that communication (to be really broad) must be as simple as possible. Let me explain it in a different way: I’m convinced that people begin to discuss starting from very simple “hooks” (black or white), then just fews of them articulate their thoughts and go further. I know that some topics could be hard to pose/answer, but I think this is the only way to have a really “broad audience”. Then how constructive/destructive the topic is, it depends on you (just like in real life!)

  3. I agree with you: there’s a great potential and we have to pull it out. It’s not easy, but we can try… and we’re trying to have an experimental approach!

Thanks a lot for your attention!


Thinking about the user

Carlo, we may have hit on an important difference between the Opinionage approach and the one I have been advocating (for example in my book on Internet-enabled collaboration between citizens and institutions, Wikicrazia): my initial move is to assume that the citizen-user is at least as smart and dedicated as myself. So, I only simplify user experience when I feel the need to do so.

In my professional life, this has been an unexhaustible source of discussion with some colleagues and peers, especially those that come from the commercial sector. Apparently, the conventional wisdom in advertising and commercial communication is that the user is stupid, greedy and selfish. He has an attention span of perhaps ten seconds, and reacts best to very basic animal impulses. We are both Italian, so former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi  (a master of commercial communication) comes to mind when he famously said: “The customer, the general public is like a 11-year-old-kid. Not even a particulary smart one.”

Mr. Berlusconi knows his business well, and it is completely possible that he is right. On the other hand, some online communities that are very complex to use are also hugely successful: look at Wikipedia, with its maze of guidelines, templates and discussion pages… and its over 30 million users.

Me, I choose to abide by the old sayings of online community managers: “assume good faith, and deal with abuses on a case-by-case basis” and “if you design a system for trolls, your users will be trolls”. If you design a system based on polarized black/white options because this is the maximum degree of intellectual sophistication that users can get, you risk attracting precisely that kind of unsophisticated users. This may be good or bad, depending on your goals, but it is important to be aware of it. Would you use a platform that assumes you are not smart enough to understand nuances and multiple choices?

I hope you don’t find this too provocative. I don’t mean to imply you don’t know what you are doing, but simply to compare notes: Like you, I am passionate about this area of collaboration.

I agree…

Alberto, I totally agree with you: user is not stupid. I don’t mean that… sorry to be misunderstood!

But “smartness” is a completely different thing than “attention span”: I’m just saying that you need a simple/fast/effective message just to win the attention of your audience. Then you can debate and pull out “pure thoughts”… Or at least this is our bet: a voluntarily simple “hook” just to engage the discussion!

Else Twitter would be just only for dumb people… :wink:

Btw I don’t find you provocative… it’s an open discussion and probably we’re both passionated about it… :slight_smile: