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Crowdsourcing Is Far From Easy for Government

by Andrea Di Maio  |  August 5, 2010  |  14 Comments

An article on The Guardian yesterday highlighted the failure of one of the crowdsourcing experiments launched by the new coalition government in the UK. According to the article

The government’s first attempt at crowdsourcing its coalition programme has ended without a single government department expressing a willingness to alter any policy.

Crowdsourcing involves soliciting knowledge and expertise from the public to help find solutions to problems. The coalition asked the public to respond to its programme on government websites. It received 9,500 replies online.

However, its formal responses, published on each website, shows Whitehall regarded the process largely as an endorsement of what it was already doing.

In cases where most of the submissions conflicted with existing policy, the department simply restated the policy. The departmental responses were published last Friday without publicity.

Although the UK government has two more crowdsourcing initiatives ongoing – one to ask for ways to save money and one about laws to be abolished – this first result does not look too encouraging.

Personally I am not surprised, nor would I draw any conclusion about open government being doomed. We are all on a learning curve and I honestly believe that leaders are making an effort to try and reach out to better engage citizens by leveraging technology.

Once again, this case proves the disconnect between engaging citizens (and voters) and engaging government employees. For open government to work, both aspects need to be addressed and possibly synchronized.

I discussed the above a couple of times in this blog (see here and here) and this is why I like the Australian way to open government where focus is on the inside rather than the outside. Crowdsourcing will work when employees at all level – from directors general to case workers – will see it as a tool for them to do a better job and not as a way to delegitimize their role and start a finger-pointing exercise.

Category: web-20-in-government  

Tags: crowdsourcing  uk-government  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
19 years at Gartner
33 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies, open government, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio


Thoughts on Crowdsourcing Is Far From Easy for Government


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oliver Bell, anked and Andrea DiMaio, titticimmino. titticimmino said: quite unlikely for ITA GOV! RT @AndreaDiMaio: Crowdsourcing Is Far From Easy for Government – http://bit.ly/crp4uh #gov20 #opengov […]

  2. Jo Jordan says:

    Touching confidence that the explicit goal is the goal being pursued? Down under are early adopters but have their own employee relations trajectory. They are still tilting at the windmills of unions. Wait to see if there is take-up.

  3. I absolutely agree with you Andrea. Where I see a lack is in the capability to listen. If you are a politician the assumption is that you win votes based on your ideas. Getting voted in validates those ideas.

    I’d personally be more interested in voting for someone who demonstrated capability in governing, responding to the public creatively and encouraging active dialogue in policy making. Those are rare skills. The question for me is how are those skills being developed in politics and government? Without them any consultation exercise is going to fall on deaf ears.

    The Australian example is a good one here.

  4. The last decade in the have seen many efforts to involve people in ‘offline crowdsourcing’ i.e. consultation at the local level – particularly in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

    Lots of citizens have been involved in putting forward ideas on how local public services can improve the way it delivers services related to issues such as health, crime, housing, the environment etc.. but the process often gets stuck at the point where it gets to local public servants actually acting on ideas.

    The early signs of what has happened with the coalition government’s first foray into this approach to policy making are comparable. Technology won’t change this. As you say – it’s about organisational culture change.

  5. This is the classic “Yes, Minister” problem. There is not posibility of success in any public policy without a coordination between the political level and the civil servant level. Open Government is not an exception, it is only one of the fields where the problem is developed with more accute simptoms.

    If a politician want to include participation in the policy design process, he should design the whole policy process around this idea and engage the civil servants at the same time. Working in paralel worlds is the perfect recipe for a tragic colision that drives to dissapointment.

  6. Davied says:

    I usually end a presentation to my government colleagues in the Netherlands with this advice: don’t start off with crowdsourcing and co-creation, but begin with two projects:
    1. Organization 2.0: use the tools within your organization to get the hang of it and evolve into a 2.0 culture;
    2. Open data: at least put a lot of your data online, so people outside your organization can start without you.

  7. I’d like to remind everyone that there’s more to crowdsourcing than inviting comments. If this was crowdsourcing, what exactly was being crowdsourced? Idea generation? Some kind of vetting process? Proof reading?

    No, this was an attempt at public participation gone wrong.

    From what I’ve read, it looks like the project may have failed for any of the following reasons:

    a) The decision what the “Programme for Government” should look like had already been made.
    b) They were interested in hearing feedback but did not plan to incorporate any of the input, in which case the participants’ expectations were poorly managed.
    c) The were open to making improvements but the input they received was not useful, in which case the process should have been facilitated better.
    d) The leadership was genuinely interested in collaborating with the public but key internal stakeholders (the departments) weren’t on board with this.

    These aren’t minor flaws either. These are major mistakes that seem to indicate that they don’t really know what they are doing.

  8. […] of ethics and integrity in public participation is coming up more often these days (see my comments here, […]

  9. Krispijn says:

    @Tim I agree with you. In The Netherlands the former governement crowdsourced the policy process during their first 100 days in office a few years ago. On selected themes they invited ideas, in the end little of them found a place in the regular policy process. In my opinion that happened because, just like in the UK, there was no attempt to get a connection between the civil servants preparing proposals and the crowdsourcing process.

    Also the policy framework in which proposals should fit was not explained to participants. Which resulted in a lot of ideas, most of them already known to policy advisors. Or policy advisors used ill formulated ideas as an example to downgrade the quality of all ideas.

    In my opinion crowdsourcing to collect ideas should be much more focussed and the policy advisors on the subject should be involved in the process to get commitment from them to act on the ideas generated.

    At the Ministry of Economic Affairs in The Netherlands we did about 6 small pilots with crowdsourcing since 2009 (under the name Innovatie 2.0). In all of the pilots commitment from both the policy advisor and the Minister was mandatory, if one of them was not comfortable with the subject being crowdsourced we searched for another subject.

    The policy advisor had to commit him- or herself to incorporate some or all of the outcomes of the crowdsourcing into his/her advice to the Minister, the policy advisor still had the possibility to advice negative about the outcomes. The Minister kept the final decision on what to do with the outcomes.

  10. Doug Hadden says:

    Government organizations are often looking for new broadcast channels to get the message across. The press often doesn’t follow the preferred government narrative. Crowdsourcing is not the technique to get a message across – it’s a technique to leverage the wisdom of many people. It’s not passive and it’s not for broadcast. It’s for listening. It can have the oppositive effect as intended – as shown by the Guardian article. Rather than convince more people to the government point of view, it increases the viewpoint that the government isn’t listening to citizens.

  11. […] Crowdsourcing Is Far From Easy for Government […]

  12. […] Andrea Di Maio also noted that for effective crowd-sourcing, it might be wise to carefully choose your crowd first: "Once […]

  13. […] Crowdsourcing Is Far From Easy for Government – “Once again, this case proves the disconnect between engaging citizens (and voters) and engaging government employees. For open government to work, both aspects need to be addressed and possibly synchronized.” […]

  14. […] Andrea di Maio covers The Guardian’s report on Programme for Government, I point out that this was not crowdsourcing reiterate the list of possible reasons why this effort failed (in the view of many observers, at least): Crowdsourcing Is Far From Easy for Government […]



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