Saturday, 7 August 2010

Crowd-sourcing has its place, even if it does resemble tabloid-consultation sometimes

By Tim

I've just been moved to comment on RSA Chief Exec Matthew Taylor’s most recent post about the Government’s Spending Challenge and Your Freedom crowd-sourcing campaigns.

Although the Yoosk team have conducted various crowd-sourcing projects for government, we weren’t involved in these most recent campaigns. But I have watched with sympathy as some of the talented civil servants and the excellent company involved- DELIB- have come in for undeserved criticism.

It is true that as an initial attempt by this new government, it might have backfired slightly but it is also entirely predictable that both political opponents and internet sceptics have written it off as an abject failure.

There are two main criticisms. Firstly, that the various crowd-sourcing web projects generated a lot of semi-literate comments and unpalatable ideas. Secondly, that there have not yet been any concrete policy changes as a result.

Crowd-sourcing on a mass scale, by its very nature, is a populist activity. In fact this type of exercise might best be described as tabloid-consultation. Much of the content generated came from people who express themselves in tabloid-like language, which is unsurprising since that is what they digest when they read newspapers and watch popular TV.

Personally, I don’t read tabloids because I don’t much care for the tone and simplicity with which they express ideas- ideas that I often find repugnant. But I recognise that tabloids are part of a free press and that they keep millions informed and generate some kind of feeling of involvement in society for their readers.

So the same applies to large-scale crowd-sourcing of ideas and views on government policy: it has its place in direct government-to-people communications, as much as briefing the tabloid press has its place in government-to-media communications. Those of us who don’t like the tone and the content will have to live with it.

True, there was an element of hacking, spamming, abusiveness and general nastiness on the sites that I think took the organisers by surprise. But it was the first time it has been done on this scale and I know they have learnt lessons.

So to conclude on the first point: crowd-sourcing will always generate a lot of tabloid-like opinions of varying usefulness and acceptability (to us) but it has its place alongside more meticulously designed consultation methods. Indeed, this government is using other methods including another populist approach, PM Direct. They should probably be explaining this better and presenting the mix as a more coherent long term programme.

The second objection- that government response to ideas has been formulaic and impersonal, that nothing has come of it and people will therefore not participate again- is stronger. It would have been better to do this over a much longer period, with separate crowd-sourcing projects between individual departments and targeted online communities relevant to their work (e.g: Ministry of Defence asking the Army Rumour Service, as we have supported in the past). Crowd-sourcing can be done with different sized crowds and crowds with common experience: it doesn’t mean inviting everybody all at once.

So will this reduce the prospect that people will participate again? I don’t think so. I think this will be seen by most as the first large scale government-to-people communications exercise and people will quickly forget about the problems. If the next one looks better, they’ll give it another go.

It is easy to criticise with hindsight: the new government tried to deliver on their commitment to widely consulting the public, rushed it and got it partly wrong the first time. It was too broad brush and they weren’t prepared to process and act on the ideas quickly enough. But at least they tried and they tried using a small UK innovator, not a huge consultancy like Capita or a trendy, hyper-financed West Coast website. Next time they’ll do better, I’m sure.

Don’t write-off popular digital consultation- it has its place!