Top 5 crowdsourcing initiatives in government: better engagement with citizens

By Steven McGinty

The first mention of ‘crowdsourcing’ was in 2006 by Jeff Howe, in an article in Wired magazine. His article highlighted the basic premise that technology has enabled us to ‘source’ ideas, labour, and opinions from a potentially large group of people.

Initially used in business, the idea of crowdsourcing has now been applied in government and in a policy context. And although involving people in government is not a new idea, innovative technologies have reduced costs and increased the reach of traditional participation methods, such as town hall meetings. Vili Lehdonvirta and Jonathan Bright, academics at the Oxford Internet Institute, suggest that the unique ability to source a large pool of opinions or ideas has a quality of its own.

With the growing demand for greater transparency and democratic participation, and an increasingly tech savvy population, it’s likely that crowdsourcing will become more prevalent in public decision-making. For that reason, I’ve decided to highlight some of the most interesting examples of government crowdsourcing platforms.

Our MK

Our MK is an online citizen engagement platform, which is part of MK: Smart – a collaborative initiative to turn Milton Keynes into a “Smart City”. The Open University, a major partner in the initiative, explains that smart cities participate in “ICT-led urban innovation that addresses sustainability issues”. The Our MK project enables the local community to put forward their ideas, start their own sustainability projects, and volunteer for projects that already exist, such as the Food Waste Juice Bar or the Breastfeeding Hub App. Overall, the scheme has been a success, with thousands of citizens innovating, collaborating, and building projects.

Better Reykjavik

Better Reykjavik is an online platform that has been developed to provide a direct link for citizens to Reykjavik City Council. It enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise the issues that they believe will improve their city. For example, school children have suggested the need for more field trips.

In 2010, the platform played an important role in Reykjavik’s city council elections; providing a space for all political parties to crowdsource ideas for their campaign. After the election, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavik, encouraged citizens to use the platform during coalition talks. Within a four week period (before and after the election), 40% of Reykjavik’s voters had used the platform and almost 2000 priorities had been created.

Since its introduction, almost 60% of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent 1.9 million euros ondeveloping projects sourced from citizens.

Citizens’ Initiative Act

In 2012, the Finnish government introduced the Citizens’ Initiative Act, with the purpose of increasing participation of the under 40’s – a demographic where less than half chose to vote in elections. It enshrines into Finnish law a mechanism for allowing citizens to have their say in the legislation debated in parliament. However, before an initiative can progress, a minimum of 50,000 statements of support need to be gathered from voting age Finnish citizens.

From a technical perspective, citizens have been crowdsourced using open source software designed by the Open Ministry, a non-profit organization based in Helsinki, Finland.

The initiative has been used to gather views on a number of issues, including the first equal marriage law in 2014 (where citizens were involved in collecting signatures as well as drafting legislation), and in 2013 the off-road traffic law reform(which focuses on where and how fast snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles can be ridden).

Future Melbourne

Future Melbourne is an interesting project by the City of Melbourne Council, which asks its citizens to help write the city plan. The wiki (a website which allows collaboration), which was launched in 2008, encourages citizens to share ideas and to edit the content of the Future Melbourne draft plan. Tietoja Minusta, a Finnish academic, suggests that this was possibly the first online community consultation that focused on large-scale city planning.

The project has now moved into a new phase with the latest iteration, Future Melbourne 2026. Some of the key issues up for discussion include facilities for the homeless, the use of arts to promote equity and inclusion, and smarter public transport.

Simplicity

In 2011, New York City launched ‘Simplicity’, an internal crowdsourcing project to harness the knowledge and experience of its employees to improve efficiency. The city used a social networking platform provided by Spigit – a tech company specialising in these types of tools. During the test phase of the project, a number of suggestions were made, including a web-based portal for items made redundant by other agencies, and a web-based help desk for employees looking to contact other employees with a particular expertise.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the many crowdsourcing initiatives introduced by governments, and although there has been some debate about their effectiveness, it’s clear that they tap into wider popular trends, such as the sharing economy. Whether it’s citizens having their say in city planning or having their questions read out in Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s likely that crowdsourcing will continue to play a role in government.

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2 Comments

Alex Goddard 4 Years Ago
I think the Simplicity approach could work well as a taster so that organisations (that is the senior management/politicians forming the culture of those organisations) can understand the possibilities of crowdsourcing. In turn, it could encourage greater use of public-facing crowdsourcing initiatives once the value has been proven to any doubters. The potential is huge, it just needs to be better understood by those making decisions - and we can't hide behind the old arguments about digital exclusion as a reason not to try these things (as is all too often the case).
Steven McGinty 4 Years ago in reply to Alex Goddard .
Hi Alex, thanks for your comment. Yes, absolutely. In the past, I have worked in private sector organisations that have used internal crowdsourcing, and in my experience this has worked really well. They can often generate simple ideas that make a big difference to staff (that management may not release) and the organization as a whole. I think taking a gradual approach to crowdsourcing is a good way to prove value. It may be the case that a 'public-facing' approach should initially focus on particular groups, such as suppliers, universities, and charities. This could result in a more inclusive approach to government, as well as satisfy risk adverse politicians. And you are absolutely right. The concerns over digital exclusion (which is a very important issue) should not be a reason to avoid adopting digital initiatives, particularly as you highlight, they have so much potential.