Crowdsourcing or crowdpleasing? Thoughts from #fdem10

Bit of an odd week with all this snow – sadly I ended up stranded in London rather than snowed in at home as our train line gave up completely – and am feeling a little cheated that as soon as I did make it home the snow all disappeared. In common with many other people I spent a lot of time cursing the lack of real time information about what was going on – and would recommend a read of Paul Clarke’s excellent reflection on the disruption.

Personally I think a little disruption now and again is very good for us.

I spent Thursday at the Future Democracy conference and just wanted to post of couple of reflections from this before getting on to the main task of the day which is finishing that post on civic architecture from last week. The conference was fairly disrupted itself by the snow as a number of speakers (and the chair) were snowed in and we had to hack the agenda to try and make things work – full honours to Andy Williamson from Hansard Society who stepped in to run things.

As a result of all this I ended up stepping in for Anthony as the DemSoc representative and debating the merits of crowdsourcing policy with the excellent Gez from Delib – not surprisingly with him taking the ‘for’ position (given that Delib ran the projects) and me arguing against. So many people asked me afterwards whether or not I really agreed with myself – as I tend to sound fairly certain no matter what I am saying this is a fair question – so I wanted to clarify here.

Crowdsourcing is a real buzz word – not surprisingly as it was coined in an article from Wired magazine: The Rise of Crowdsourcing and was explored further in Wikinomics. But basically what we are talking about is getting large groups of people to co-operate in an open process to carry out the kind of tasks which have previously been carried out by small groups of experts in a closed environment. We could be talking about the naming of a new product, the analysis of mining data to find oil, the search for alien intelligence or the #uksnow map.  Some of the most interesting stuff I have come across is around the social crowdsourcing of medical research data – but the basic idea is that many hands make light work – so now do you see why the democracy folks are so excited by it????

However with such a new and amorphous term one of the problems is that we don’t actually have a tight enough common definition of what we are talking about and one of the issues highlighted from the debate was that people are using the term crowdsourcing in two main ways:

  • Crowdsourcing the issues – ie one huge agenda setting exercise where as many people as possible put something on the list for consideration
  • Crowdsourcing the solution – a more co-productive process where the participant both as the questions and

The main cases we referenced were of course the two large scale central government examples from earlier in the year:

  • Your Freedom: Where the government asked the public which laws they want shot of
  • Spending Challenge:  Giving people the chance to point out where we could save money

And to be clear – neither of these are attempts to solve problems – these are agenda setting exercises at best.  And more worryingly – do we think the public realised that – will they be disappointed if their ideas are not adopted?  Not sure that the communication around that point was clear to be honest.

However the question is whether these were successful projects.  They certainly got attention – over 100,000 ideas on the spending challenge. But I am not sure that this is the measure of success that I want to use – just adding an idea may be participation but I’m not sure its democratic and what I want to see happening are good democratic experiences rather than more opportunities for the mob to say “I want”. Democratic participation for me means also being involved in the process of creating a compromise between competing ideas, or at least being aware that this is the next stage,  and that means we need to go further than just listing the ideas. Before judging the success of this exercise I want to know whether or not any of these ideas are going to actually have a policy impact and for that we will have to wait and see for a bit:

Answer from Hansard on the Freedom Bill

A couple of examples are mentioned from the spending challenge around ideas that were generated and adopted – but I have to say I find it really hard to believe that anything being actioned this quickly had not been floating around Whitehall in some form already as an idea.

And here comes my rather great cynicism around all this – my concern is that without reforming the rest of the of policy process all we are doing is inviting lots of people to a party, asking them to hand their coats up and then shutting the door in their face before they get into the the main event.

I wrote a piece the other week about the idea of agile policy making and this links in to this thought. Its not enough to get mass participation at the start of the process – the problem of participation is almost certainly not a lack of ideas – the issue for me is how do you get meaningful ongoing widescale participation not just in the act of documenting bright ideas but then with the arguably more difficult process of researching, refining and developing these ideas into something that can actually work.

And this is where I think we really need to consider what crowdsourcing means. Government is an age of enlightenment exercise that assumes a huge amount of rationality from its participants. Crowds are not rational. It may be a great idea to involve as many people as possible in setting the agenda but this is not going to work for policy formation which needs to actively involve experts – problem solvers as well as problem owners – in a process of design and reflection which is then democratically evaluated and adopted/rejected.

And just one other point – there is a tendency in the narrative around this stuff to ignore or discount the expertise of civil servants in favour of the knowledge of the crowd. I think this veers from shortsighted to insulting and I think we need to value our experts a little more.

Were these two projects a success? We will have to wait and see – but in the meantime the risk is that all those people who participated get turned away from further participation because the rest of the process has not been changed and there is no place for their further involvement as yet.

I think its great to see new ideas piloted and hats off to Gez and the team for delivering this as its not easy to get government to innovate. I am sure that the learning was immense which is important as we clearly need something to change if we are going to involve more people in decision making. We also need to lean on these computer mediated methods as we need to accept that we can’t afford mass participation without using digital as our main channel – at the same time as hoping we solve issues of digital inclusion in time to avoid this being an elitist decision.

However until I see what happens next with the ideas that these processes generated I am going to keep an open mind as to whether or not this was a crowd pleasing rather than a crowd sourcing exercise.

  1. Paul Evans

    December 5, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Aren’t the interesting possibilities less associated with a ‘wheel and spoke’ relationship where the state gets told what the problems/solutions are than in the peer-to-peer possibilities where the public agree a *description of the problem*?

    That way, people learn why things are the way they are and they understand what the trade-offs should be? Let’s not forget the the over-riding priority must be policymaking that serves the general will. Personally, I’d rather live in a dictatorship that made good decisions than a democracy that put all of the levers in the hands of idiots.

    Our fundamental problem is that we have a one-way relationship with the state – we can only get the bureaucracy to change by prodding politicians into doing something – and the politicians are lined up as surrogate armour for the bureaucrats. We could, instead, be on the same side of the table as politicians – as long as the quality of public discourse were higher and more conversational.

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