Richard Fahey has a detailed post up about an interesting crowdsourcing idea that has been proposed by the Conservative Party in the UK: £1m prize for citizen participation platform

Earlier this week the UK Conservative party promised to offer a £1m cash prize to a person or team that creates an online platform that can be used to solve “common problems”.

The prize – which the party says will be the largest offered by a British government in modern times – will be awarded for a platform in which citizens can post ideas in relation to government policy. The exact specifics of the platform have not been outlined, but it’s envisioned as a mesh between Fixmystreet,  Facebook, Spigit, IdeaScale and MixedInk.

The platform will need to be able to sift through millions of online comments and highlight the most sensible suggestions from those with experience of the area in question. Most current idea generation platforms use digg-like voting mechanisms as a means of highlighting the most popular suggestions. The £1million prize is on offer to anyone who can devise a more sophisticated way of sifting through suggestions and weighting relevant ideas in an appropriate manner.

According to the press release (quoted on the IdealGovernment from an email), the end goal here is to create a citizen participation platform that enables the soon-to-be-elected new UK government to — among other things — “tap into the wisdom of crowds to resolve difficult policy challenges”.

The press release mentions a number of examples where some kind of online collaboration among citizens could be quite useful (e.g. identifying wasteful government spending, co-creating government how-to information or mapping out traffic routes around road construction sites). But it also goes into the area of public participation.

My comment on Richard’s blog makes for a nice follow-up to my previous attempt at comparing crowdsourcing and public participation, which is why I re-post it here:

Great post, thanks for the detailed write-up!
In the original email from MP Hunt (as quoted in the IdealGovernment post), he describes what they have in mind as “an online platform that enables us to tap into the wisdom of crowds to resolve difficult policy challenges. In government, we will use this platform to publish all Green Papers, and open up the entire policy making process to the public.” The press release goes on to state that using this platform the public would be able to “collaborate to improve government policy.”
Policy making ultimately means having to deal with difficult trade-offs and making tough choices. Contrary to the previous commenters, I’d argue that it remains a huge challenge to meaningfully engage citizens in this process, particularly online.
While the crowdsourcing initiatives that are often mentioned in this context (e.g. FixMyStreet, the Netflix Prize, the Next Stop Design contest etc.) may vary in terms of problem complexity and a few other aspects, they seem to share — to some degree, at least — a number of key characteristics:
* Nice-to have (non-critical projects, ok to cancel at any time)
* Not very time-bound
* Objective evaluation criteria or success metrics
* No concept of “stakeholders”
* No need for representativeness or inclusion (the requirement to have all stakeholders at the table)
* No need for consensus seeking/building among stakeholders/participants
* No need for deliberation
Unfortunately, public participation (engaging citizens in decision making) is almost never lucky enough to rely on conditions as easy as these.
There are a number of online tools out there that seem to support the process needs of public participation fairly well. However, they still tend to require a high degree of human moderation and facilitation (in essence, exception handling), which makes them really hard to scale. That, in my view, is the real challenge that a “citizen participation platform” contest might help address.

Great post, thanks for the detailed write-up!

In the original email from MP Hunt (as quoted in the IdealGovernment post), he describes what they have in mind as “an online platform that enables us to tap into the wisdom of crowds to resolve difficult policy challenges. In government, we will use this platform to publish all Green Papers, and open up the entire policy making process to the public.” The press release goes on to state that using this platform the public would be able to “collaborate to improve government policy.”

Policy making ultimately means having to deal with difficult trade-offs and making tough choices. Contrary to the previous commenters, I’d argue that it remains a huge challenge to meaningfully engage citizens in this process, particularly online.

While the crowdsourcing initiatives that are often mentioned in this context (e.g. FixMyStreet, the Netflix Prize, the Next Stop Design contest etc.) may vary in terms of problem complexity and a few other aspects, they seem to share — to some degree, at least — a number of key characteristics:

  • Nice-to have (non-critical projects, ok to cancel at any time)
  • Not very time-bound
  • Objective evaluation criteria or success metrics
  • No concept of “stakeholders”
  • No need for representativeness or inclusion (the requirement to have all stakeholders at the table)
  • No need for consensus seeking/building among stakeholders/participants
  • No need for deliberation

Unfortunately, public participation (engaging citizens in decision making) is almost never lucky enough to rely on conditions as easy as these.

There are a number of online tools out there that seem to support the process needs of public participation fairly well. However, they still tend to require a high degree of human moderation and facilitation (in essence, exception handling), which makes them really hard to scale. That, in my view, is the real challenge that a “citizen participation platform” contest might help address.

Just to state the obvious, here’s how an average policy issue at the local level, such as a broken city budget or a contested urban planning project, might differ from the conditions outlined above — further indication that crowdsourcing as we know it may not easily apply to public participation (or at least not in the straightforward ways that many seem to suggest all too eagerly):

  • Critical issue (high impact and real consequences, decisions can’t be avoided)
  • Critical timeline (internal/external dependencies, decisions can’t be postponed beyond a certain point)
  • Often very subjective and/or conflicting evaluation criteria based on personal values and preferences (just to agree on the same success metrics or a formula for evaluating policy proposals and ideas may be a challenge of its own)
  • Stakeholders (failure to involve the right people at the right time can seriously derail the overall process)
  • Inclusion is key (failing to bring all major parties to the table can pose serious risks to the overall process)
  • To achieve some degree of consensus is often desirable or needed (that means a lot of synthesizing and integrating of differing viewpoints and opinions is necessary, an often slow and painful process that requires good process design and skilled facilitation)
  • Deliberation (required as one preferred method of allowing larger groups to work through a decision-making process)

This is just a quick list of differentiators I came up with on the fly; there may be more, of course.

At this point in time, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of work remains to be done before we see technology that can handle these requirements. Running a contest that might help improve our understanding of the challenges and how they might be solved (while producing some open source software along the way) maybe isn’t a bad idea at all. Definitely worth watching!