Four fundamental principles for crowdsourcing in government


A few weeks ago I gave the keynote at the annual conference of the Business Improvement and Innovation in Government (BIIG) network of the Queensland Government, speaking on A Future of Crowds: Implications for Government and Society.

I have been increasingly pulled towards the government sector over the last years. I’m delighted, as changing the nature and structure of government is one of the most important aspects possible in creating a better future for ourselves.

In my keynote, after describing the underlying tenets of crowdsourcing and giving a varied set of examples of how they can be applied in government (which I’ll share in another post), in my final section on leadership I ran through the practical issues that drive success and finally offered four principles for crowdsourcing in government.

Here are the four principles in summary:

1. Open by default

Governments and most companies have until very recently being closed by default. Information has been considered to be protected unless a case is made and accepted for it to be made available externally.

This is the exact opposite of how it should be. Any government must start from the precept that all information they have and deal with is openly available, unless a solid case can be made why this should not be the case.

While the US government has recently mandated that all government information should be open and machine readable, that doesn’t mean that it is easy. There are many practical as well as cultural challenges to openness. However open information must be a founding principle, not least because it allows citizens to discover and invent ways to make that information valuable to all.

2. Framed around outcomes

Many government entities around the world are good at defining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and managing their performance against these. However often the objectives are not appropriately defined, measuring activity rather than the creation of social value.

One of the biggest traps is the frame of ‘service delivery’. This presupposes the government as a distinct entity delivering services to citizens, leading to KPIs around effective services.

The primary frame in fact should be around social value, which could just as well be delivered by enabled citizens as by governments. Unless outcomes are framed at the level of social value, rather than the means by which it is created, organizations can easily become trapped in old frames without ever recognizing the limitations.

3. Governance for transformation

A dominant theme of my work for some years has been the idea of governance for transformation, in which governance does not limit but supports transformational change. While I often apply this theme in corporate environments, it is equally or even more important in government.

In the case of crowdsourcing in government, there are absolutely many risks and concerns, including privacy, representativeness, equity, and bias. However rather than viewing these as insuperable obstacles, it is possible to frame governance in a way that addresses these issues, yet supports and enables the enormous value possible through crowd participation in government.

4. Learn by doing

We do not yet have a fool-proof handbook for how to implement crowdsourcing in government. That does not mean that we need to wait until it is written. In fact the solutions for one country, situation, or agency are highly unlikely to be the same for others. Cultural differences, among others, shape what will work and how across contexts.

While drawing on experts and the experience of others, government agencies must learn by doing, by trying things and seeing what works and what doesn’t. This approach of active experimentation is made possible by effective governance for transformation.

Following the success of my book Getting Results From Crowds, which provided a broad overview of how to create value using crowdsourcing, I am planning a series of smaller guides to how to apply crowdsourcing in specific context, including crowdsourcing in government. In the meantime I will be delving more in how governments – among others – can create exceptional value with crowds.

  • Great post Ross, I found it on Twitter. We just published a post covering the crowdsourcing trend in government procurement on the Onvia blog, hope you find it interesting.

    Our data shows the crowdsourcing trend is definitely increasing at the local agency level across the US:

    Our post:

    • That’s interesting, thanks for the pointer Travis!