The outer limits to the crowd's wisdom

In the policy world, public participation requires different rules than crowdsourcing allows

Public participation  is the process of involving people in collaborative problem-solving and decision-making. Also known as public engagement or stakeholder involvement, the idea has been around for several decades, and during that time, a rich body of knowledge has emerged that makes it possible to give people a seat at the table when it comes to addressing challenging issues at all levels of government.

Crowdsourcing, the concept of applying open-source principles to fields outside software, is a fairly new phenomenon that was popularized only recently. Jeff Howe coined the term in his article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” in the June 2006 issue of Wired magazine.

The question getting lots of attention in the Government 2.0 space today is: How might crowdsourcing be applied to public participation and government policy-making?

In May and June 2009, we saw the Open Government Dialogue, an attempt by the Obama administration to use crowdsourcing to solicit recommendations on an open-government policy by engaging participants in a “collaborative drafting process.” Recently, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom proposed creating a citizen participation platform that would enable a Conservative-led government to “tap into the wisdom of crowds to resolve difficult policy challenges.”

It’s tempting to look at successful examples of crowdsourcing and suggest that the same principles be applied to government decision-making and policy creation. However, what proponents of that idea tend to miss are the specific process requirements inherent in public participation. In the four examples mentioned in Howe's article and the many crowdsourcing projects that have followed since, two key characteristics of successful projects are important to note:

  • Fairly objective, or agreed-upon, evaluation criteria and success metrics for participant input.
  • No concept of stakeholders, and thus no need for inclusion, representativeness, consensus seeking and deliberation.

Unfortunately, public participation could never rely on those conditions. Quite the contrary: Public participation gets applied almost exclusively in situations in which there is considerable conflict over the trade-offs people are willing to accept based on their personal values and beliefs. And all stakeholders must be involved to minimize the risk of disputes and polarization that might ultimately lead to project failure.

That is not to say that crowdsourcing doesn't provide great opportunities to engage people in the policy-making process, especially when it comes to tasks and activities that share the proper characteristics — for example, idea generation, fact checking and translations.

But when it comes to integrating multiple viewpoints, co-creating policy and, ultimately, decision-making, any successful process must adhere to the tried-and-tested principles of public participation, mainly — among others — inclusion and collaboration.

There is more to public participation than crowdsourcing alone can deliver.

About the Author

Tim Bonnemann is founder and chief executive officer of Intellitics, an early-stage participation start-up based in San José, Calif.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jan 27, 2010 Barry Virginia

One might view the subject of crowdsourcing from two perspectives: 1) INFORMATIONAL: the use of technology to improve government's ability to provide information to its citizens--sometimes on a one-way basis and sometime with a request for a response to the information provided. The important limitation here is that the process of informing and, where appropriate, soliciting a response does not include a direct impact on the actual decision making from which policy grows. 2) DECISIONAL: the sharing of key elements of the decisions that underlie policy with the crowd, using the anecdotal or statistical leanings of responses to influence what policy is to be. The first of these is an extension of processes that have been around since town criers called out current news and information in the town square. It can, if used properly, make for a more involved and educated citizenry, while preserving the hallowed distinction between citizens and those chosen to set and administer policy. The second nearly always ends up in an attempt to approximate the collective decision making tried unsuccessfully by various societies down through history and specifically avoided by our founding fathers who understood that the crowd could be too easily manipulated to allow their collective control of policy making. Decision making, if done properly, is a lonely process not susceptible to group-think at any level from family to entire society. My take is that we need to continue to explore the informational side of crowdsourcing but avoid the decisional like a plague, which it can easily become in the hands of policy makers who end up using it to avoid responsibility for their decisions.

Sat, Jan 23, 2010 Stephen Whitehead

Great article Tim. I'd agree that crowdsourcing is, in many ways, not a democratic tool. Democratic processes are much more systems of negotiation than collaboration. Collaborative processes are a great way of producing technical solutions, but the problems which require democratic participation tend not to be technical. Rather they involve trading off between the values and interests of different stakeholders so all stakeholders need a place at the table. (Shorter version: I agree)

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