Crowdsourcing — using the wisdom of the crowd on the Internet — has been especially intriguing to public officials. It gives them access to new ideas as well as an assessment of the popularity of those ideas.
Of course, not all of these crowdsourcing projects have worked so well.
In many cases, these efforts have failed to meet the criteria that James Surowiecki identified in his book, “The Wisdom of the Crowds”. Among other factors, he pointed out that the crowd’s assessment is most useful when they have a great variety of viewpoints based on diverse experience and their judgments are independent of each other. It has been too often the case in public sector crowdsourcing that these criteria are not satisfied.
There has often been a sense by the public that their suggestions get lost and are no one pays attention to them, which leads to low participation. For their side, the professional staff ask “where do we come in?” Is there no role for expertise anymore?
The very popular and Emmy-award winning reality TV series, “The Voice”, may provide a model. The show is intended to identify new singing talent.
The Voice starts with open auditions in many cities, much like crowdsourcing sites are open to anyone to propose an idea. Then in the winnowing process, the professionals enter the picture.
At the beginning of the televised season, professional and well-known singers select candidates for their team. So they act as a filter. This, in a sense, parallels the selection of the public’s ideas that professional staff in government decide they will actually consider.
Then the professional singers do something else – they provide mentoring, advice and training to the candidates on their team. So far as I know, I haven’t seen anything like this in the government or corporate use of crowdsourcing, but it is something they should be doing in order to refine and improve on ideas that arise from the public.
After a few additional trials of their talent, the professional singers select a final set candidates. At that point, the public re-enters the picture. (And the Voice does seem to follow the characteristics of successful crowdsourcing that Surowiecki found.)
Over the rest of the series, it is the votes of the public which determine ultimately who walks away with the number one position and the prized recording contract. In a twist on the usual way people vote, The Voice allows multiple voting – a measure of intensity of support, which also parallels many political situations where intensity is as important as the raw numbers.
While the producers of the show likely do this to enhance their ratings and the public’s involvement with the show, there is a lesson here as well for public officials. While these officials may sometimes dismiss the public’s ideas as misguided, that easy dismissal or failure to follow up on public suggestions only serves to increase the cynicism of voters about the government.
Instead, perhaps like The Voice, after initial rounds of public suggestions, the experts in government could work with the most best ideas to hone them and then present those back to the public to identify which they like the most. This provides the experts a meaningful role in the process and it also brings in the public in what is the ultimate step in a democratic decision process – the priorities of the citizens.
This final step would certainly lessen the cynicism that has accompanied government crowdsourcing efforts in the past and increase participation in those efforts, which would only help to make them even better.
©2014 Norman Jacknis