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Crowdsourcing Policy

Monday 23 January 2012, 11:15

The panel:

  • Will Cavendish, Cabinet Office
  • Roger Hampson, London Borough of Redbridge 
  • Elizabeth Linder, Facebook
  • Alex Butler,
  • Simon Burall, Involve
  • Jill Rutter, Programme Director, Institute for Government (Chair)

Will Cavendish described the Cabinet Office’s cross-government Red Tape Challenge, which sources information from the public about government regulations. 10% of the 27,000 public comments had been useful to ministers, which is a good rate of quality responses and a larger number of people engaged than for other types of consultation. Over 12,000 regulations have been posted online (since April 2011), of which over half have been improved or scrapped. View Will's presentation.

Roger Hampson recounted the development of the “You Choose” websites for the London Borough of Redbridge. These allowed residents to consider and submit how they would fund public services or make savings locally. Users were asked to choose ways to raise and spend money, with accessible information on each decision they make. Along with YouGov, they ran a similar exercise on national spending before the March 2011 budget, which showed a similar pattern of savings to that announced by the Chancellor (with the exception of foreign aid, which users would have cut).

Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s government and politics specialist, said that the key to development was to see how people were misusing the product – discovering they wanted to upload new  photos rather than have a single image for instance. This was easier for fast-moving online products but the lesson was to observe what people do. Tapping into sites that people already use allows direct access for sourcing opinions and ideas, she argued. She also cited examples of crowsourcing ranging from political candidates sourcing policies in Zurich elections to Coventry council deciding what sound should mark the anniversary of the major air raid in 1940.  But there were limitations too – Facebook was about sharing and was public – some people wanted to stay anonymous. 

Alex Butler spoke about her experience at the COI. There had been more proactive methods in online engagement since 2005, with civil servants going to the sites that people use (such as Mumsnet) and having conversations there. Alongside the crowdsourcing of the Programme for Government, the “Spending Challenge” and “Your Freedom”, these were real advances, but this level of engagement had not yet been baked into policymaking.

Involve director Simon Burall warned that not everything that is billed as ‘crowdsourcing’ really is. He also gave some general rules for crowdsourcing: not all crowds are equal, some information can more reliably be gained from experts; crowdsourcing is best used to collect distributed information; it can be used to test experiences of users/public, but decision-makers must balance it with cost of services and needs of minority; harnessing good ideas and innovation is a good use of crowdsourcing. There is a risk of raised expectation: that people will expect the most popular choice to be enacted, even when it cannot. Questions must be framed and expectations managed effectively. Discussion ranged on the use of crowdsourcing to improve services, the impact on elected politicians; whether crowdsourced responses sacrificed complexity and whether it was possible to move into co-creation of policy. Use the hashtag #ifgcrowds on Twitter to follow the debate and discussion.

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