Public Sector Crowdsourcing: What’s Possible?

Lately I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about crowdsourcing in the public sector. Although they’re sometimes confused, in general I think there are two types we can talk about: crowdsourcing policy (or ideas) and public goods (tangible work or services). This is a topic included in my Open Government Strategy for the City of Boston.

The best analysis of private sector crowdsourcing of ideas is this recent article in the Sloan Management Review. The researchers analyze three crowdsourcing projects: Linus, Wikipedia, Innocentive, and Threadless. By breaking down the organization of each case, they make clear these projects not a utopian creative free-for-all, but instead a carefully constructed set of rules and practices that combines forms of decision-making, creativity, and incentives in new ways to create new ideas. For example, Wikipedia relies on the decisions of editors for disputed articles, Threadless users vote for the best ideas, and on Innocentive businesses to pick winners. In each the rewards to the contributors differ, but exist even when they are non-monetary, often in the form of “love” or “glory.”

Two examples of policy crowdsourcing are Peer to Patent and Next Stop Design. Peer to Patent opens patent applications, with the permission of the applicant, to a pilot system which allows the public to contribute to the research on “prior art.” The idea is by allowing experts to contribute to this process, they can accelerate the work of the Patent Office in determining which ideas deserve patents. The project was founded by Beth Simone Noveck, a professor at New York Law School who leads the Obama administration’s open government initiative. The project is successful because it enables topic experts to conveniently contribute information that expedites the official process. However, it remains a voluntary pilot project and has not been taken to scale for the entire government.

The Next Stop Design project, launched by researcher Daren Brabham solicited designs for a Salt Lake City bus stop from around the world. Daren, now a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote a PhD dissertation about public sector crowdsourcing. If you can access it, he lays out his approach in a recent article in Planning Theory. He argues that crowdsourcing can replace conventional approaches of citizen participation:

In essence, any urban planning project is predicated on a problem. Typically that problem is how best to accommodate changing populations with different infrastructure, all while considering the interests of residents, developers, business owners, and the environment. If a problem can be framed clearly, and if all the data pertaining to a problem can be made available, then that problem can be crowdsourced.

Since I’d argue most planning projects involve multiple, contested problems, I’m not sure crowdsourcing can replace a host of existing theory and approaches. However, where the problem contains a significant design element, and the boundaries are noncontroversial (such as a bus stop), it may be an excellent strategy.

Finally, what about crowdsourcing public goods themselves? In the words of Tim O’Reilly, can government be a “platform for greatness”? Last month I argued such thinking was silent to the realities of government: power is divided between agencies, it’s run by politicians, and most people may not agree this is the way to go to begin with. The problems seem more surmountable at a local level. Mitch Weiss, the Mayor of Boston’s Chief of Staff, raised the issue at a provocative talk at the Rappaport Institute titled “How “Peer-Produced” Government Can Help Fill Potholes, Save Cities, and Maybe Even Rescue Democracy.” I worked with him last summer, and I think their initiatives to release data and improve citizen’s ability to communicate with government has been very positive. However, I’m not sure the city will ever be coordinating peer-produced services.

Even if we can overcome the formidable institutional and political barriers, there are good reasons why governments may never be directly involved in facilitating the peer-production or crowdsourcing of public goods. I encountered a good explanation about why this summer at the iGov Research Institute. Bas Kotterink, a researcher with the Netherlands research organization TNO, proposed the following hypothesis in a presentation:

Governments are not geared for co-creation. Instead, they should facilitate and monitor user and company-led innovation of public tasks with a more proactive role in democracy (inclusion) and enforcement, protecting basic human values such as privacy and dignity.

He argued that since the rules of private and government action are so different, initiatives at either extreme are the most able to product public goods. Mixtures of the both – such as some e-participation initiatives – are doomed to fail. However, he stakes out an important role for government. They can ensure minimum standards for key services are protected by punishing offenders and enforcing regulations, or providing it themselves when market failures occur. They can promote data standards and access to public data (such as in apps competitions). They can define and protect standards of individual privacy. Although they may not directly produce certain public goods as in the past, governments will continue to play a critical role we are only beginning to understand.

Author: Rob Goodspeed