Published on January 23, 2012

Crowdsourcing from first principles

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

The use of crowdsourcing in policy making may be a relatively new phenomenon. However, the principles that should guide its use are not. 

This is the first in a ‘series of three posts. The series is based on a talk I gave at the Institute for Government at their ‘Crowdsourcing Policy’ event, 23rd January 2012.

Crowdsourcing, as a term, is a recent neologism, coined by Jeff Howe of Wired Magazine, in 2006 to mean:

the act of an institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.”

As I did the research for my talk, I came across a number of websites and activities that describe themselves zeitgeistily as doing ‘crowdsourcing’, when they really aren’t doing anything different to what many have done before. I’m thinking particularly of the sorts of sites that provide a shop window for small traders and freelancers (for example), and those that seek funding from a large(ish) group of individuals (for example).

So, while the term may be new, the ‘process’ of crowdsourcing certainly isn’t. Howe notes in his 2006 piece that crowdsourcing as a concept has a longer history than this, referencing the 1841 book by Charles MacKay, the Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I suspect that it goes back longer than this.

The reason I think that this is important is because while I think that crowdsourcing for policy has the potential to bring something new and interesting to policy making (my subsequent posts will explore what), there are a lot of assumptions and half-thought through notions of what it can do.

In fact, crowdsourcing is like any other public engagement process, just because it has worked in some places and a policy maker is excited about its potential, doesn’t make it the right process to use in every situation. We often find that the starting point for many government is the funky new process that is in the headlines, rather than it being the reason they want to engage citizens in the first place. As the slides below show, our starting point is always the purpose of the public engagement exercise and it is this that should dictate method (or process), rather than the other way round.

The reason this is important is because poorly thought through public engagement processes have significant negative effects. As our Pathways through Participation project shows, poor consultation and engagement doesn’t just turn citizens away from engaging with government, it can turn them off engaging in their communities much more widely than this.

What I do in the next post (link to follow) is explore the uses which policy makers can, and cannot, put crowdsourcing to. The final post (link to follow) in the series will then draw-out a set of principles which I hope will provide some guidance for how to ensure that crowdsourcing can have an effective impact on the policy making process.

In the end, the principles that should guide any public engagement process aims to bring citizens views into the heart of government are the same as those that should guide crowdsourcing. If you don’t have time to read my other posts, which will draw on case studies and analogy, then please do at least take this message home.

Photo credit: ad551

See also:

Using the crowd effectively 

Crowdsourcing: Back to basics

7 Responses to “Crowdsourcing from first principles”

  1. January 23, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Will there be a recording of tonight’s event? Look forward to the next two posts!

  2. Simon Burall
    January 23, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Sounds like there will be Tim. Up very soon on the IfG’s site. I’ll link to it when it’s up.

    Thanks for the anticipation!!

  3. TMI
    October 14, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    I think you’ll find this research relevant!

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1919614

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