Top 5 crowdsourcing initiatives in government: better engagement with citizens

By Steven McGinty

The first mention of ‘crowdsourcing’ was in 2006 by Jeff Howe, in an article in Wired magazine. His article highlighted the basic premise that technology has enabled us to ‘source’ ideas, labour, and opinions from a potentially large group of people.

Initially used in business, the idea of crowdsourcing has now been applied in government and in a policy context. And although involving people in government is not a new idea, innovative technologies have reduced costs and increased the reach of traditional participation methods, such as town hall meetings. Vili Lehdonvirta and Jonathan Bright, academics at the Oxford Internet Institute, suggest that the unique ability to source a large pool of opinions or ideas has a quality of its own.

With the growing demand for greater transparency and democratic participation, and an increasingly tech savvy population, it’s likely that crowdsourcing will become more prevalent in public decision-making. For that reason, I’ve decided to highlight some of the most interesting examples of government crowdsourcing platforms.

Our MK

Our MK is an online citizen engagement platform, which is part of MK: Smart – a collaborative initiative to turn Milton Keynes into a “Smart City”. The Open University, a major partner in the initiative, explains that smart cities participate in “ICT-led urban innovation that addresses sustainability issues”. The Our MK project enables the local community to put forward their ideas, start their own sustainability projects, and volunteer for projects that already exist, such as the Food Waste Juice Bar or the Breastfeeding Hub App. Overall, the scheme has been a success, with thousands of citizens innovating, collaborating, and building projects.

Better Reykjavik

Better Reykjavik is an online platform that has been developed to provide a direct link for citizens to Reykjavik City Council. It enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise the issues that they believe will improve their city. For example, school children have suggested the need for more field trips.

In 2010, the platform played an important role in Reykjavik’s city council elections; providing a space for all political parties to crowdsource ideas for their campaign. After the election, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavik, encouraged citizens to use the platform during coalition talks. Within a four week period (before and after the election), 40% of Reykjavik’s voters had used the platform and almost 2000 priorities had been created.

Since its introduction, almost 60% of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent 1.9 million euros on developing projects sourced from citizens.

Citizens’ Initiative Act

In 2012, the Finnish government introduced the Citizens’ Initiative Act, with the purpose of increasing participation of the under 40’s – a demographic where less than half chose to vote in elections. It enshrines into Finnish law a mechanism for allowing citizens to have their say in the legislation debated in parliament. However, before an initiative can progress, a minimum of 50,000 statements of support need to be gathered from voting age Finnish citizens.

From a technical perspective, citizens have been crowdsourced using open source software designed by the Open Ministry, a non-profit organization based in Helsinki, Finland.

The initiative has been used to gather views on a number of issues, including the first equal marriage law in 2014 (where citizens were involved in collecting signatures as well as drafting legislation), and in 2013 the off-road traffic law reform (which focuses on where and how fast snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles can be ridden).

Future Melbourne

Future Melbourne is an interesting project by the City of Melbourne Council, which asks its citizens to help write the city plan. The wiki (a website which allows collaboration), which was launched in 2008, encourages citizens to share ideas and to edit the content of the Future Melbourne draft plan. Tietoja Minusta, a Finnish academic, suggests that this was possibly the first online community consultation that focused on large-scale city planning.

The project has now moved into a new phase with the latest iteration, Future Melbourne 2026. Some of the key issues up for discussion include facilities for the homeless, the use of arts to promote equity and inclusion, and smarter public transport.

Simplicity

In 2011, New York City launched ‘Simplicity’, an internal crowdsourcing project to harness the knowledge and experience of its employees to improve efficiency. The city used a social networking platform provided by Spigit – a tech company specialising in these types of tools. During the test phase of the project, a number of suggestions were made, including a web-based portal for items made redundant by other agencies, and a web-based help desk for employees looking to contact other employees with a particular expertise.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the many crowdsourcing initiatives introduced by governments, and although there has been some debate about their effectiveness, it’s clear that they tap into wider popular trends, such as the sharing economy. Whether it’s citizens having their say in city planning or having their questions read out in Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s likely that crowdsourcing will continue to play a role in government.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on digital issues.

Smart citizens, smarter state: from open government to smarter governance

 

By Steven McGinty

Last year, a poll by Ipsos Mori found that only 16% of the British public trust politicians to tell the truth. Although scepticism is healthy for a democracy, these figures are significantly lower than in 1986, when 38% of the public trusted MPs “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party

The British Social Attitudes survey attributes this decline in public confidence to the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. However, a more general dissatisfaction with institutions (the media, the police, and financial institutions) – who have all had their own scandals – may also be a factor.

With this decline in trust, it’s not too surprising that the British public are calling for greater transparency and more ‘open government’.

What is open government?

According to Professor Beth Simone Noveck’s book, ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing’, open government involves moving away from a ‘closed-door model’ of governance to one where government institutions connect with people and organisations from a diverse range of backgrounds. This includes citizens, academics, voluntary organisations and the commercial sector.

Examples of citizen involvement

The commercial sector has already benefited from greater citizen involvement. For instance, Facebook, which relies heavily on its 1.44 billion monthly users to generate content, is valued at over $300 billion. This is three or four times more than traditional US media companies such as CBS and Viacom. Netflix, a global streaming service for movies and TV series, also sought to benefit from outside talent by offering a million dollars to researchers who could improve their ability to make recommendations for their subscribers.

However, it’s not just about the commercial sector. Galaxy Zoo, an online citizen science project, has been very successful thanks to its pool of ‘citizen scientists’, who help translate raw information into useful scientific knowledge. In its first year, the project created 50 million ‘classifications’. To date, the project has published 48 articles using the data classified by volunteers.

Benefits of open government

In her book, Professor Noveck includes an example of how government might reduce reoffending. She explains that to initially understand the problem data scientists are required to interpret the data. Legal scholars, practitioners and victims’ groups are also needed to help understand the practical realities of the criminal justice system.  Using this scenario, she describes how professionals, such as psychologists and social scientists could design pilot projects to reduce reoffending.

Professor Noveck argues that increasing openness could provide greater insights and a more legitimate form of government. She suggests that open government has the potential to restore trust in public institutions.

Failure of open government

In 2010, the Coalition Government consulted the public on its programme for government. The website received a total of 9,500 official responses; although no government policies were changed as a result.

At the time, The Guardian described this as a failure, and Simon Burall, Director of Involve, a group advising bodies on consultation, warned that

You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all. They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again.”

Although a proponent for more open governance, Professor Noveck concedes that government initiatives to involve citizens, like the one introduced by the previous UK government, have failed.  She claims that the ad-hoc nature of these programmes and the long standing culture of closed-door practices present major barriers.

Smarter governance

Therefore, Professor Noveck advocates a move towards, what she calls, ‘smarter governance’. In essence, this means that institutions should look to target and match specific people with the right opportunities – which is now possible thanks to ‘technologies of expertise’. Well known platforms such as LinkedIn allow individuals to be found based on their particular skills. And online learning platforms such as the Khan Academy provide ‘badges’ to indicate the mastery of skills.

In the UK, the app GoodSAM, which evolved from London’s Air Ambulance service, is designed to alert approved medical professionals when an emergency is nearby, so that potentially lifesaving treatment can be administered.

In the US, the New York Police department maintains a database of its employees’ abilities, ranging from language skills to hobbies, such as yoga or beekeeping. The department takes the tasks of collating skills very seriously, with all new recruits completing a form as part of the human resources process. Having this knowledge allows senior officers to make better use of their staff abilities, and provide a better service.

Conclusions – “More Minecraft, less statecraft”

Professor Noveck concludes her book by calling for positive steps to ensure that institutions not only listen to advisory boards and formal committees, but also include the citizen experience and wider expertise. She recommends that there should be a diverse range of conversations between government and its citizens, and that reinventing the processes of decision making should be a matter of urgency.


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