Is Crowdsourcing an effective method to generating policy ideas?

Written by Brad Rebelo

Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining information or input into an idea or project by enlisting the help of a large number of people. This is not a new concept and can come in many forms.

Social media is a tool that can be used to crowd-source. Users can post information or pose questions to their friends and followers in an effort to solicit feedback from them. As a user reading a post, you have the ability to express your thoughts on a post by liking, sharing with a friend, or commenting on it. Comments are the most valuable form of engagement as it enables the reader to express their ideas, thoughts or experiences more clearly; thus, providing the writer with instant reaction that they can use to make an informed decision.

Wikipedia is another common form of crowdsourcing. Instead of hiring a small team to write and maintain an encyclopedia, why not let people from all over the world write it for you. In this form, users can go onto the site and search for the content they are looking for and modify content with new information as necessary. This can be done for virtually any subject matter and by anyone who would like to contribute regardless of their level of expertise.

The Government of Canada has used crowdsourcing as a means of consultation on multiple occasions, recent examples include for potential electoral reform and for the development of Canada’s 2018–2020 National Action Plan on Open Government to name a couple.

Crowdsourcing innovation can be very useful as the requestor can leverage technology to increase engagement from the public at large or can target a smaller, more focused, audience to do so. In either case, this can accelerate innovation by facilitating the sharing of ideas between individual who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to interact. It can be an easier, faster and cheaper way to get the information you need. It also provides you with varying perspectives on a given subject while engaging and getting buy-in from the public.

This all seems nice but it doesn’t come without challenges. As Maria Jones and Florence Kondylis from the World Bank highlight, crowdsourcing is not always an ideal solution. Their real-world lessons learned provide insight into the technology you use and the audience you are trying to reach. For example, technology may seem like it can make it easier to collect information but can it manage the level of details that you are looking or can it only handle simplified data collection? Also, you often don’t know who is actually going to respond to your request for input. Are the contributors’ representative of the target population? Do they actually know what they are talking about? So you have to be careful about who you engage what you are looking for input on.

You can add concerns about whether contributors feel their submissions are not valued because they are one of many submissions or the lack of transparency about what happens to their submission after they send it in. This is not to say that crowdsourcing is not a valuable technique to solicit ideas; just that you have to think about the context in which crowdsourcing is used.