Published on October 13, 2014

Open government and the wisdom of crowds

Open Government Partnership

By Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She supports Involve's work on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network and Sciencewise. She is especially interested in opening up decision-making to those who might otherwise struggle to be heard by policy-makers.

Open Government Manifesto







“Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem solving and production model that leverages the collective intelligence of online communities for specific purposes set forth by a crowdsourcing organization — corporate, government, or volunteer. Uniquely, it combines a bottom-up, open, creative process with top-down organizational goals.”  Professor Daren Brabham, University of Southern California


You often see people on Twitter appealing to the “hivemind” and exhorting other users to put forward their opinions, help them solve a problem or source information. The idea that we can buzz in and out with thoughts at will, and together build something or solve a problem that we couldn’t alone, is very attractive. At its best, the same principle applies to crowdsourcing: an organised yet collaborative process, which appeals to the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to generate valuable insights, and devise ideas and solutions which better reflect the needs of the community.

There are some interesting examples of this kind of crowdsourcing. In 2013 the United Nations launched a worldwide dialogue on the post-2015 development agenda, using digital media and mobile phone technology to enable hundreds of thousands of people across the world to collaboratively develop policy ideas. The UNDP Eurasia has also been experimenting with crowdsourcing, holding a public idea contest encouraging social enterprises to think about new renewable energy solutions.

On a smaller scale, the Guardian crowdsourced a manifesto for a ‘model London Mayor’ in 2012, based on Comment is free reader contributions, along with existing policy proposals from think tanks, academics and campaign groups. Although the final document can only claim to represent the views of Cif readers, it was an interesting and ambitious project to collect ideas and solutions for a better London.

There are some caveats however. Due to the top-down nature of crowdsourcing, those who have set forth the purpose of a project decide the terms of the debate, and their power to filter and prioritise contributions can skew a conversation. Moreover, Involve’s director Simon has previously warned that although an exciting new tool with a lot of potential, crowdsourcing is not always the best or most appropriate process to use in many situations, and particular attention should be paid to the principles guiding its use in policy making. Read his thoughts here, here and here.

Crowdsourcing is potentially transformative in its emphasis on the ‘wisdom of crowds’ rather than experts or traditional decision-makers. But, as with most new digital platforms, it should be viewed critically, as a tool through which to achieve our objectives.


Crowdsourcing an Open Government Manifesto

Involve is facilitating the development of an Open Government Manifesto. Crowdsourcing is the right tool to use for our aims, as the project seeks to harness the knowledge and expertise of a range of civil society organisations and individuals to identify crucial areas for reform, understand what our priorities should be, and hammer out strategies for how we might achieve change.

This crowdsourced manifesto is linked to an international initiative called the Open Government Partnership, of which the UK is a founding member. Every two years the UK government must work with civil society to develop an open government action plan. Six months after the general election the UK will publish its next action plan, and we want a set of crowdsourced commitments ready for them to adopt.

So, in Involve’s capacity as coordinators of the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network, we are calling on you to identify priorities for open government reform. These could be commitments related to transparency, participation or accountability.

Commitments in the current UK National Action Plan include that government will promptly publish all new primary and secondary legislation, that whistleblowers will receive legislative protection, and that data related to procurement and contracting is improved to aid transparency. A number of charity and campaign groups supported these commitments including, amongst others, CAFOD, Campaign for Freedom of Information, The Institute for Government, Demsoc, Christian Aid, Corruption Watch, Global Witness and Transparency International UK.

We’re excited about the potential of this project to bring together civil society interested in making our government more transparent, engaging and accountable, to collaborate on a ‘wishlist’ of government commitments. The online crowdsourcing platform will be launched in the next few weeks – so watch this space!

Click here to read about the UK’s current commitments, here for examples of commitments from around the world and here to read more about the Open Government Partnership.


3 Responses to “Open government and the wisdom of crowds”

  1. October 28, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Very interested in the concrete parts of this blog: transparency is a real mechanism for improving the quality of government.

    But why does ‘Crowdsourcing’ still seem to lack traction? I have read dozens – maybe hundreds – of postings promising the future is crowds. And I understand the allure of scale, which leads to concensus, which in turn begets legitimacy. But… But, but, but… Where is the discipline? Where is the challenge?

    So let me play devils advocate here: Mitchell and Webb’s fab sketch – linked above – is a good, satirical take on Crowdsourcing. So can someone give a few examples to counter this?

    • Josephine Suherman-Bailey
      Josephine Suherman
      October 28, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      Firstly, the Mitchell and Webb sketch is very funny! But I’m not sure it’s a satire on crowdsourcing, rather a satire on television shows which seek the public’s banal or ill-informed views on the news as filler content.

      I can’t speak for the discipline or challenge within other crowdsourcing projects – as I lay out in my blog, crowdsourcing is just a tool, one which can be used well or badly, for good or ill. But in the context of the Open Government Manifesto, we’ve set out clear guidelines for realistic and good quality commitments. We also wholeheartedly encourage ambitious commitments which challenge stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership. Clearly not all ideas are good ideas, but crowdsourcing is a great way for us to draw on the range of expertise out there.

      I have updated the blogpost with the link to contribute a commitment to the manifesto – thanks for the nudge!

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