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Policy for the crowd, by the crowd

Few methodologies will have an impact on innovation like crowdsourcing does. 

Enabled by digital technologies and a cultural shift towards collaborative practices, crowdsourcing brings the collective wisdom and funding of the masses to bear on the generation, testing and funding of ideas. As a result, crowdsourcing helps entrepreneurs and businesses build products and services co-designed by the very customers that will use and buy them, dramatically reducing the chance of building and investing in solutions that no one will want or pay for. Be it in widgets or social impact, crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming an important component of innovation programs for businesses and individuals alike.

In government, however, excluding the twitter campaigns that politicians might use, crowdsourcing has had relatively little traction. Two examples stand out to show the power of engaging with citizens on topics that traditionally don’t occupy the public’s interest.  In 2012, the Great NZ Science Project, part of the Government’s $60m National Science Challenges, successfully engaged with a broad cohort of the NZ public and helped to identify nationally important science challenges.  It also increased the general awareness of science in New Zealand.  Brazil’s Participatory Budgeting, initiated by municipal governments but supported through competitions and the expansion of civil society networks, helped to clean up government spending, encouraged active participation by citizens in public life, and re-directed resources to low-income neighbourhoods. 

In addition to engaging citizens on the design of policies that they will affect them, crowdsourcing also allows citizens to verify the outcome of a process and can lend an air of inclusiveness and transparency to the process itself. This process can then indirectly legitimise the outcome of the process as well.

Crowdsourcing can also help to keep a government ‘honest’. The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland shows how a citizen initiative process decreases government legitimacy, after the government failed to implement the outcome of an initiative process that was perceived as highly legitimate by its supporters.

What’s wonderful about crowdsourcing is that it doesn’t substitute traditional policy development programs but rather runs in concert with them.  There is also a range of plug and play software solutions available to enable low cost adoption of the method.  If there was ever a low hanging fruit that would enable governments to incorporate innovation best practice and permit rapid policy prototyping and testing by engaging with the citizenry, there may be few better and easier options available than crowdsourcing.

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