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Uncle Sam Wants You – Crowdsourcing Now!

Uncle Sam Wants You – Crowdsourcing Now!

Crowdsourcing continues to gain momentum in the private sector.  From Microsoft’s Imagine CupLego’s Mindstorms and from GE’s $200m Ecoimagination Challenge to Sony’s Open Planet Ideas, we’ve seen countless examples of cost-efficient, time saving, and high yield crowdsourcing implementations. While crowdsourcing has gained traction in the private sector as a great vehicle for innovation and customer engagement, it is interesting to observe how the public sector is embracing crowdsourcing as an economically effective vehicle for engaging their constituents.


The current U.S. political climate favors the perception that a government “of the people and by the people” that engages taxpayers for feedback, ideas, and contributions is more in touch with public opinion. Not only is it appealing to voters but it is also great PR for politicians and lawmakers. 


Earlier this year we learned that the U.S government were using the crowdsourcing platform IdeaScale as a platform to obtain the public’s input on various topics and issues ranging from how to encourage innovation in California’s IT infrastructure to Obama’s Save Award, aimed at saving tax dollars. The number of agencies participating in IdeaScale has now expanded from 23 to 36 and continues to grow.   IdeaScale offers its clients, whether Microsoft or Uncle Sam, the ability to create a platform on which a community of participants can effectively rate, edit, vote, contribute, and submit their ideas and suggestions.  This level of engagement as well as the platform’s affordability is exactly why USAID, for example, has used IdeaScale to raise support and promote the topic of economic advancement in the developing world.

These examples are just a fraction of the number of policymaking initiatives the public sector has recently embarked on that rely on crowdsourcing.  FEMA head Craig Fugate’s recent call to crowdsource his agency’s disaster recovery plans via Facebook and Twitter and the EPA’s efforts to crowdsource carbon emission reduction ideas, demonstrate the government’s openness to crowdsourcing - yet how effective is this type of engagement and are agencies truly interested in acting on the suggestions put forth? The White House released a memo in March of 2010 encouraging government agencies to use crowdsourcing as extensively as possible; however, practical concerns over public-driven policymaking and unlimited participation are real. Although the U.S. House of Representatives’ recent CrowdSpring web design project was a success, Obama’s Open for Questions forum was not – in this case the use of crowdsourcing backfired resulting in anything but an ideal selection of relevant questions for discussion at a press conference.

Obama’s use of Web 2.0 and social media to draw in contributions, supporters, and to share information during the presidential campaign was groundbreaking and his administration’s continued push to connect with voters and the general public in this way has changed the political landscape.  The Open Government Initiative launched in 2009 calls for “more citizen participation to enhance government effectiveness and for greater collaboration across all levels of government and with the private sector to harness innovative tools” yet at the practical level it appears government is hesitant to act on these ideas.  Actually accepting the public’s contributions is an entirely different matter, both at the national and international level.

The UK recently embarked on a program to crowdsource voter opinion on whether or not to abolish “red tape”, yet after receiving contributions from over 9,500 individuals, not a single idea was put into action. Furthermore, the vast majority of ideas and suggestions contributed via IdeaScale are not taken up.

So, are these crowdsourcing efforts then simply exercises in good public relations and creating the image that government is actually “in touch”? What do you think? Are they a commitment to acting upon public opinion or reflective of a genuine attempt to solicit and act upon public opinion and good ideas? Perhaps, but it may also be, in some cases, the result of poor design and bad execution (see Carl Esposti’s recent article “Crowdsourcing's Seven Deadly Sins”), an inevitable occurrence given how new crowdsourcing is and how many are still testing the model.

So, what’s your view on these recent public sector crowdsourcing initiatives? Are you aware of other other cases of successful or poorly executed projects? We would be interested in hearing from you.

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