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Is it Better to Crowdsource Wisely than Widely?

August 6, 2010

In a previous job as a community worker, I helped organise a public meeting about local housing. The meeting caused a bit of controversy within the council and at the actual event there were more council officers than residents. I was quite disheartened and refrained from getting involved in the discussions as it would have just added to imbalance; one more worker amongst residents.

I remember at the time a guy who I respected as a great community development professional, told me ‘it was better to consult wisely than widely’.

This phrase has stuck with me. The results from that public meeting were actually quite good – lots of practical suggestions about things that could be done in the area, gathered from deliberation between people who knew or cared about the topic in hand.

With quite a bit of publicity given the Coalition governments foray into crowdsourcing, I have been thinking more and more about this phrase. I am sure anyone who is reading this believes that the web has great power to facilitate the involvement of citizens in policy making, but I think there needs to be more  focus on the wisely, rather than the widely.

I guess it’s because I don’t really like many of the ideas gathering platforms that I have seen being used in the public sector. I appreciate this is all new stuff – and I certainly don’t have the ability to suggest anything radically different right now – but there is something about them that just doesn’t do it for me. Perhaps it’s because I have always like the deliberative element of offline consultation – residents (sometimes with agencies) talking and debating to find solutions.

The focus on widely rather than wisely also has other consequences; namely, credibility amongst those who actually make decisions. The biggest challenge for any citizen involvement in public policy is getting the policy makers to act on what people want. It’s been that way with offline consultation, and I believe it will be that way with online consultations – regardless of the added transparency. If policy makers think the platform that ideas have been gathered and debated through is flawed, it gives them a quick and easy excuse for inaction.

When looking at better ways, I am again reminded of something that someone said to me. During a workshop on social media I did with various council officers, I asked someone who his bosses wanted him to engage using social media. His reply: ‘well, everybody.’

I understand his bosses intentions, but pragmatically speaking, perhaps this just won’t cut it in when it comes to making good, citizen influenced policy.

We have come across ideas from the private sector that I’d like to explore more. Firstly – properly planned online focus groups using tools like Facebook. Recruit participants and setup an online focus group with much the same setup as an offline focus group. Anecdotally (and admittedly  set in a different context) people who are trialling this have told us that the information people are willing to provide is astonishing and provides really useful insight into their experiences.

Secondly, I am increasingly interested in the idea of competitions. Asking people or organisations to submit really well thought out, pragmatic ideas and solutions to policy problems – much the way online scientific innovation platforms operate. The best ideas win prizes, to be reinvested back into organisations or into communities – perhaps using the Community Dividend model I helped develop in a paper we wrote about public services and civil society working together.

Smaller scale online crowdsourcing and the ‘lets engage everybody’ approaches aren’t mutually exclusive – the two could work together. But to get something substantive where the results are formed out of good quality deliberation – something that public servants would take more seriously – perhaps the wisely needs to be given as much credibility as the widely.

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