A few days ago I gave a presentation on “Solving Public Problems with Crowdsourcing” for 80 assembled governors of the Russian Federation outside of Moscow at an event on Contemporary Management Technologies.
The presentation was a sweep of the global landscape covering ways institutions are engaging with the public on (and off) line to brainstorm, collect data, undertake tasks, generate economic wealth, raise money and elicit opinions. In other words, I was focusing on how government institutions can collaborate with citizens to solve problems through crowdsourcing.
It was a diverse group to address. It included the governor of Arkhangelsk, an Arctic Circle state, with no roads that can only be accessed by helicopter as well as the governor of Krasnoyarsk, a state so big that it takes 4 hours to fly across it. The federal president appoints these governors. But a new law (recently reversed in part by Putin) is slated to establish direct elections this autumn. Hence many of these leaders are thinking about their electoral chances in a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the Kremlin and, above all of the need to deliver better services to improve Russian quality of life with dwindling resources.
My goal was to be concrete and specific (thanks GovLab Research) about how to use technology to solve real problems in practice not in theory. My perspective was informed by my experiences in public service where I learned how hard it is to get stuff done on a hundred topics a day without access to good information or the time to get it. I wanted to convey at this propitious moment with the promise (threat?) of elections around the corner that engagement is a way, not to get beaten up by the press and public, but to collaborate to the end of solving real problems.
Crowdsourcing itself is a slippery term. A recent article counted 40 different definitions of “crowdsourcing” and there are lots of terms from open innovation to collective intelligence to crowd crafting to human computation, which get substituted interchangeably. My approach to defining crowdsourcing centered around the following variables:
Institution + Platform + Incentive + Citizens/Communities = Crowdsourcing
Using this model, I wanted to get the audience away from thinking that citizens can only complain and, instead, to remind them that people are smart and will give if asked. Crowdsourcing, is in essence, about strategies for working with citizens, companies and organizations — whether those with specific expertise, passion and know how or the general public (didn’t know how to say Joe Q Six Pack in Russian) — to collaborate with a government institution to solve a problem.
Important to point out is what crowdsourcing projects have in common (and this I learned clearly fromDaren Brabham‘s excellent short book on Crowdsourcing) is that crowdsourcing projects must be directed by an institution and depend upon the institution to organize the practice and set the rules. They aren’t bottom up exercises like Wikipedia nor are they top down activities like a corporate contest to pick a logo. To quote from one of my favorite slides that I often use: “it ain’t a thousand flowers blooming or command and control.”
Rather, Crowdsourcing exists in the middle between institution and citizens. This liminal space between government and civil society is such a fertile and little understood idea, especially in the public sector, where there can be resistance to saying “I don’t know” and “I need help” from anyone outside my professional cadre. To do crowdsourcing well, the institution has to play an active role in planning. This demands work but it also creates an incentive to public leaders who fear that engagement might lead to plebiscite or free for all where either they get beaten up or are drowned in information they can’t use.
For the future, GovLab and others need to create materials that outline the anatomy of specific crowdsourcing projects. For institutional leaders flirting with the idea of greater openness and engagement, it will help to understand concretely both the steps to take and the steps taken by others before. For example, it may be heartening for the wary and would-be innovator to know that Veterans Affairs ran several important challenges to decrease the backlog in Veterans benefits claims with a 3K piece of software and part-time assistance of one employee. It’s crucial to understand that the open health government data movement got started with one tireless individual working to convene a few dozen people to use the data to demonstrate what’s possible. Today that Healthdatapalooza movement has growth exponentially and others outside of government have stepped up to help. But it doesn’t have to be hard to get started.
To inspire real change, vision must be married to tactics.. In short, the more concrete, the more granular and the more specific we can get by telling stories of how innovations got done and why they worked, the more likely we are to encourage leaders to understand that engagement is a must have tool of successful governance.
So please share examples of the “how to” of crowdsourcing – who did what, how much did it cost, what were the tools and, above all, what were the outcomes — that can be used to inspire any leader to become more collaborative and, as result, more effective. Comments here or links cc @thegovlab. Thanks!