News and Comment

Of the people, for the people, by the people: crowd sourcing government

Friday 7 June 2013


A recent government report on public engagement in policy making recommends that government departments should pilot projects where they invite “expert citizens” to digitally take part in the decision making of the government – basically crowd sourcing the work of the department – what the Guardian calls a ‘wiki-style’ approach to policy. The Committee were impressed by a US government project (Peer-to-Patent) which asked people who had applied for patents to review the applications of other inventors online, providing the evidence for an official to make a decision. The whole agenda can be seen as part of a wider move away from the classic representative democracy model (elect an MP and come back in four years time) to a more active or participative model, where all citizens are involved directly in governance. Some commentators suggest that this type of model is the secret to reversing declining voter turnouts and trust in politicians. It’s a grand aim, but what would an active, crowd-sourced participative government look like?

Involving citizens in policy-making isn’t a new idea; consultation has been part of the work of government for years, dating back to the high-profile debates about genetic modification in the 1990’s. But the current Government’s intention to “reform the relationship between the citizen and the state” through initiatives like the Big Society has a distinctly different flavour. Rather than proposing a policy and inviting comment, the new trend is for a more active involvement of citizens at the ideas stage – what we in the trade would call ‘upstream engagement’. This proposal from the Select Committee goes even further by suggesting that the actual business of government (albeit in the relatively innocuous field of patent applications), could be taken on by an active and involved citizenship.

The US pilot cited in the report has been widely praised both for advancing the cause of active citizen participation, and for helping to clear the vast backlog of cases the Patent Office had accumulated. It succeeded by tapping into an existing and clearly-defined subset of citizens, (inventors), who had the skills and motivation to take part. A real challenge in expanding this approach will be to find similar groups who are willing and able to get involved.

So what could this crowd-sourcing approach look like in other departments? Well there are a couple of examples already in place:

The Red Tape Challenge is a Cabinet Office project which lists thousands of regulations affecting daily lives in the UK. The website encourages citizens to suggest regulations that should be reduced, amended or plain abolished, as per the Government manifesto commitment to cut red tape. The advantages are obvious: it saves civil servants the arduous task of trawling through the regulations, and gives citizens a direct route to highlight the areas they care about. Of course the downsides are the same as with any open process – the usual suspects tend to take over while others struggle to see the attraction of a website full of red tape.

A slightly more irreverent example is cycling charity’s CTC Fill That Hole app, effectively a UK-wide, crowd sourced road inspection programme. Fed up with frequent punctures and occasional but serious accidents, CTC set up a website where anyone can tag the locations of potholes in UK roads. With potholes estimated every 110metres in the UK, the online map quickly became studded with reports of dodgy tarmac. While this isn’t a government programme, the CTC astutely observed that highways authorities are obliged to fix dangerous pot-holes that they know about. Local authorities seem to have taken the bait, and the website is regularly updated with reports of fixed holes. It even hosts a league table, which reveals that top performing local authority, Islington, has repaired 100% of the 649 potholes reported to it.

Outside of government other civil society organisations are also getting involved, the Victoria and Albert Museum want your help to organise their catalogue photographs, while researchers at Oxford University are looking for help deciphering ancient writing systems.  So where else could the government look after the pennies and engage the populace at the same time? Because if the recommendations of the Select Committee are taken seriously we can look forward to some interesting projects as departments look for ways to make radical digital engagement work for them.

Lucy is a project manager at Dialogue by Design.