COMMENTARY

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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