Starting at the national level with the Obama Administration’s open government initiative in 2009, there have been many attempts at crowdsourcing in various governments and public agencies.
From his campaign, President Obama realized that we can now scale up collaboration and participation – and create a 21st century version of the old New England Town Meetings that, while not perfect, did a pretty good job of engaging residents.
Unfortunately many of these efforts have been disappointing in various ways:
- Fewer people participated than expected.
- The forum was “hijacked by fringe groups” – this was one criticism of the early Obama open government efforts because decriminalizing Marijuana turned out to be one of the more popular proposals. (But see my earlier post “Do Good Ideas Bubble Up From The Crowd?”)
- The site went stale, with early excitement evaporating and participation going to zero. As an example, see the Texas Red Tape Challenge.
- Citizens were encouraged to participate and did so, only to find that their ideas were disregarded by public officials, which only increased the frustration among both citizen and officials.
Nevertheless, when they succeed, citizen engagements can satisfy several public purposes. They are a great way to get help and new ideas, test proposals, understand priorities of voters and educate citizens about the complexities and realities of governing. Moreover, in response to the general decline in respect for major public, nonprofit and private institutions, crowdsourcing is a way of earning back respect and trust – and convincing a skeptical public that public officials really care. All of these benefits make it easier for public officials to govern better.
And the successes have provided important lessons. Most important, like lots of other things, crowdsourcing requires some thought before implementation.
You won’t get the best results if you take a “just build it and they will come” approach. At the other extreme, you can bury any government initiative in “analysis paralysis”. A reasonable balance is to plan how public officials will:
- Set realistic expectations within their own organization as well as with the public;
- Target the appropriate audience for the discussion;
- Set up the topic/question in a clear, unbiased way;
- Start the conversation with citizens;
- Figure out how to manage the conversation and keep citizens engaged; and last but not least,
- End the engagement in a way that provides a positive experience for citizens and the government.
When these engagements actually engage citizens, they help redefine the relationship between public officials and the people they serve. And they can provide a core of solid support from the public that any public official would desire – the kind of support that will carry officials through those bad times when they also make mistakes.
[photo credit: http://community.weber.edu/WeberReads/meeting_21922_md.gif]
© 2014 Norman Jacknis