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Contest and Consequences

A labor union's $100,000 contest inviting its networked community to submit fresh ideas on how to improve the lives of working Americans has sparked an online revolt.
 
 
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It was supposed to be one of the Service Employees International Union's leaps into bottom-up online consensus building, but the community blowback at the Since Sliced Bread project that broke out this week has all the appearances of being an online revolt.

Since Sliced Bread is a $100,000 contest inviting people to send in ideas to improve the lives of working people in America. As described by SEIU on the site: The contest encouraged ordinary Americans, policy experts and economists to enter fresh ideas on how to create the kinds of jobs that allow people to raise families, obtain affordable health insurance, pay for college and save for retirement."

The design of Since Sliced Bread appeared in many respects fairly open and bottom-up oriented. Anyone could send in proposals. Visitors were encouraged to participate in the community blog.

A staggering number of ideas -- more than 22,000 -- were submitted in a matter of months. After the deadline for submissions passed, a group of "diverse experts" winnowed them down to 70. Then, each of the contest's judges, who come from a variety of fields and across the political spectrum, voted for 21 finalists, who will all appear in a "Since Sliced Bread" book with an introduction by SEIU president Andy Stern.

But oddly enough, of the 21 finalists, few would appear out of place in the playbook of even the least revolutionary of Washington think tanks -- like, say, that of the corporate-funded, pro-business Democratic Leadership Council (DLC): Teaching schoolchildren how to be fiscally responsible, or creating a ProdiMae/ServiMac: "similar to FannieMae/FreddieMac's mission, but for [small and medium businesses (SMBs)] -- provide an efficient secondary market for equity/debt so SMBs can get funding through local funders who would then sell those instruments in the secondary market -- unleashing national sources of capital for SMBs."

Indeed, Marshall Wittman, now a staffer for the DLC, an organization widely loathed by Democratic activists outside of Washington who believe it has sold out the party to corporate interests, is one of Since Sliced Bread's featured bloggers. Wittman is also a former legislative director for Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition and speaker for the conservative Heritage Foundation and Hudson Institute.

Universal health care is on the list of 21 finalists, but it's hardly a new idea: Harry Truman put it in the Democratic Party platform more than half a century ago. While the list includes an idea to blanket the United States with wireless internet access, it doesn't accurately reflect some of the more radical concepts the entrants put forth, such as a suggestion to " annually ostracize a lobbyist," something that, in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, doesn't seem entirely out of place, or using computers to ensure that all Americans participate in the political process.

But winnowing out the 21 finalists was left up to the "diverse experts" and the judges' choices were … final.

And then, as the contest put it, "[s]tarting at 9 a.m. EST on Monday, January 9, Americans began the first round of online voting to choose the best three ideas from the 21 finalists."

Voters are encouraged to cast a ballot for up to three ideas. After a whittling down process, involving a series of votes, on Sunday, Jan. 22, the "three ideas that received the most votes will be submitted to the judges, who will pick the first-place winning idea and the runners-up." In order to sweeten the pot, "the creator of the best idea since sliced bread will receive a $100,000 prize, and the two runners-up will each receive $50,000 prizes."

But only a few days into the voting process, things started going terribly pear-shaped. In a nutshell, the big contention is that the judges picked a bunch of rather unfresh and tame ideas.

"NO VOTE FROM ME! All these ideas suck. I wouldn't pay $5 for any of them. What a waste of time," went one commenter's response. "I too am very disappointed in the lack of originality and diversity in the final selections," wrote another. "Three selections out of 21 involve national health care, which may be a great idea but is hardly original. "

These comments came in response to Andy Stern's call for appreciation of the ideas that were chosen after the initial blowback: "I confess -- I'm a bit surprised at the hostility meeting the 21 ideas announced yesterday morning," he wrote. "Let's take a minute to appreciate the work of the 21 people who are finalists -- they are amazing ideas that deserve discussion and consideration."

"If this is what is considered 'amazing' we really, really have sunken to new depths," one commenter responded. Hundreds of commenters offered similar sentiments of disappointment at the 21 finalists.

Asked about the online reaction, Gina Glantz, a senior advisor to SEIU, pointed out that Since Sliced Bread is an experiment, a foray into how to interact with an online community for an organization with little history to guide its actions. She said that as the contest had progressed, input from the community was constantly incorporated into the process. Glantz called it "remarkable" that more than 22,000 ideas were submitted, and that even the negative backlash was a testament to the fact that, in just a few short months, SEIU had a "passionate community" on its hands. The response, she said, was a "credit to the contest."

Glantz gave evidence for SEIU's willingness to embrace and adapt to the criticism by pointing out that on Thursday, Jan. 12, Since Sliced Bread asked the community how best to "spotlight and promote other good ideas" outside of the 21 selected.

Aside from the anger at the finalist ideas themselves, the community expressed strong distaste for the process arranged to select the entrants, and the judges SEIU picked to do the task. Who are the judges? Washington establishment political careerists and policy mandarins, for the most part. Among them are Andy Stern, SEIU director; Bill Bradley, managing director, Allen & Co., LLC, and former U.S. senator, D-N.J.; Bill Frenzel, former Republican congressman from Minnesota and guest scholar, economic studies, The Brookings Institute; and Gail Christopher, vice president, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Office of Health, Women and Families.

Glantz said that SEIU had set out to find a "broad swath" of judges ranging in age, expertise and ideology. Other judges include Wendy Kopp, president and founder of Teach for America, and David Sifry, founder and CEO of the blog search engine Technorati.

"I must confess that I am extremely disappointed in the final list," Michael W. wrote in the comments section. "The real shame is that the judges' list has had the effect of throwing a bucket of cold water over the optimism and excitement that was generated by this contest. The excitement is gone, since nothing new and or revolutionary was considered 'safe' for the final list. In retrospect, I guess we shouldn't have had such high expectations given the list of judges and their qualifications. But hope springs eternal, and in this contest, hope was snuffed out with the cold water of 'politics as usual.'"

Since Sliced Bread exposes how far established member groups have to go in adopting democratic platforms for decision-making and consensus-building projects. Already some other organizations have employed online tools for users to rank the concepts they like, as the progressive advocacy group TrueMajority displayed in late 2004, urging its members to use the "Eve" bulletin board format to prioritize their ideas.

The Since Sliced Bread saga is far from over, and there is plenty of time for SEIU to adapt to its community's critiques. It bears pointing out that the number of dissatisfied commenters does not reflect anywhere near the number of people who contributed ideas. At the same time, this author has never seen such outrage from an online community toward an institutional host. Moreover, those in favor of the 21 ideas and the process that selected them could have gone online and defended Since Sliced Bread. However, only a tiny fraction of the comments display any kind of support or defense of the project's outcome.

But SEIU's marked attempt to evolve with the community may lead to greater conciliation and interaction in its future projects. The challenge is for SEIU to relate effectively with a networked community it helped create.

The debacle illustrates what can happen when a top-down member organization like a major labor union tries a "web 2.0" approach without fully preparing itself for all the implications of empowering a network or community -- that the participants in fact expect to have power. But how could the union have avoided this outcome? There are few historical examples to guide how to get something like this right, much less offer a definition of what "right" is. Trailblazing is a trial-by-fire process. And just because SEIU got a little burned shouldn't be cause for them to stop trying.

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.