Can the crowd deliver more open government?


Governments around the world are getting wise to using crowdsourcing to help formulate imaginative government policy and make the process more dynamic and inclusive for its citizens, something worth thinking about in these times of political disengagement, unravelling social cohesion and declining western voting levels.

Crowdsourcing and policy making was the subject of a lecture by visiting academic Dr Tanja Aitamurto at Victoria’s Swinburne University of Technology earlier this month. Dr Aitamurto wrote “Crowdsourcing for Democracy: New Era in Policy-Making” and led the design and implementation of the Finnish Experiment, a pioneering case study in crowdsourcing policy making.

She spoke about how Scandinavian countries have used crowdsourcing to “tap into the collective intelligence of a large and diverse crowd” in an “open ended knowledge information search process” in an open call for anybody to participate online and complete a task.

It has already been used widely and effectively by companies  such as Proctor and Gamble who offer a financial reward for solutions to their R&D problems.

The Finnish government recently used crowdsourcing when it came to reform the country’s Traffic Act following a rash of complaints to the Minister of the Environment about it. The Act, which regulates issues such as off-road traffic, is an emotive issue in Finland where snow mobiles are used six months of the year and many people live in remote areas.

The idea was for people to submit problems and solutions online, covering areas such as safety, noise, environmental protection, the rights of snowmobile owners and landowners’ rights. Everyone could see what was written and could comment on it.

Dr Aitamurto said crowdsourcing had four stages:

• The problem mapping space, where people were asked to outline the issues that needed solving
• An appeal for solutions
• An expert panel evaluated the comments received based on the criteria of: effectiveness, cost efficiency, ease of implementation and fairness. The crowd also had the chance to evaluate and rank solutions online
• The findings were then handed over to the government for the law writing process

Dr Aitamurto said active participation seemed to create a strong sense of empowerment for those involved.

She said some people reported that it was the first time in their lives they felt they were really participating in democracy and influencing decision making in society. They said it felt much more real than voting in an election, which felt alien and remote.

“Participation becomes a channel for advocacy, not just for self-interest but a channel to hear what others are saying and then also to make yourself heard. People expected a compromise at the end,” Dr Aitamurto said.

Being able to participate online was ideal for people who lived remotely and turned crowdsourcing into a democratic innovation which brought citizens closer to policy and decision making between elections.

Other benefits included reaching out to tap into new pools of knowledge, rather than relying on a small group of homogenous experts to solve the problem.

“When we use crowdsourcing we actually extend our knowledge search to multiple, hundreds of thousands of distant neighbourhoods online and that can be the power of crowdsourcing: to find solutions and information that we wouldn’t find otherwise. We find also unexpected information because it’s a self-selecting crowd … people that we might not have in our networks already,” Dr Aitamurto said.

The process can increase transparency as people interact on online platforms and where the government keeps feedback loops going.

Dr Aitamurto is also a pains to highlight what crowdsourcing is not and cannot be, because participants are self-selecting and not statistically representative.

“The crowd doesn’t make decisions, it provides information. It’s not a method or tool for direct democracy and it’s not a public opinion poll either”.

Crowdsourcing has fed into policy in other countries too, for example, during Iceland’s constitutional reform and in the United States where the federal Emergency Management Agency overhauled its strategy after a string of natural disasters.

Australian government has been getting in on the act using cloud-based software Citizen Space to gain input into a huge range of topics. While much of it is technically consultation, rather than feeding into actual policy design, it is certainly a step towards more open government.

British company Delib, which is behind the software, bills it as “managing, publicising and archiving all of your organisation’s consultation activity”.

One council who has used Citizens Space is Wyong Shire on the NSW Central Coast. The council has used the consultation hub to elicit ratepayers’ views on a number of topics, including a special rate variation, community precinct forums, strategic plans and planning decisions.

One of Citizen Space’s most valuable features is the section ‘we asked, you said, we did’.

When the council held a consultation on rate increases this section summarised what people had been asked to comment on, who responded, what they said and the actions the council would take in response.

It’s clear, it gives people who have bothered to respond some feedback on the process and shows that councils are not just in it for the sake of it. People can quickly and easily make submissions on development applications and planning controls, search the results of past consultations and sign up for the council’s resident e-panel.

The council’s Manager of Customer and Community relations Sue Ledingham said the council did a lot of research and looked at a number of solutions before choosing Citizen Space.

“We were looking for something that gave us an opportunity for us to manage a consultation, rather than outsourcing it to someone else,” Ms Ledingham said.

“We wanted to have that skillset in house and train our staff up to get used to managing our own consultations and linking it back to our resident e-panel. It gave us the flexibility to do that.”

She said the product meant teams carrying out the consultation were responsible for data collection and reporting, “the onus is on teams and staff to really deliver in the consultation and really look at what people are saying.”

Another major advantage of the platform is being able to dispense with (often) expensive consultants to run consultations and keeping the raw data.

“We didn’t have a central place where the information was and couldn’t write reports on what was trending and what people were saying over time. Now we do.

“We’re finding that there’s more take up and a big change in how we’re engaging with the community. It provides people access 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They don’t have to come to a forum if they don’t want to.”

Asked how much the service cost Ms Ledingham said it was a “cost effective solution”.

Some of Delib’s other clients include the federal Departments of Health, Environment, Communication and Finance; Queensland State Development, Infrastructure and Planning; City of Melbourne and the British National Health Service.

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