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4 Unique Approaches to Government Crowdsourcing

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Is this a Golden Age for citizen involvement in government?  As dismayed as some may be with the political process, there are growing opportunities for meaningful engagement in many areas, thanks to growing social media tools and a willingness to participate by many ordinary people.

Gavin Newscom is California’s lieutenant governor, and was formerly the mayor of San Francisco.  He is a huge advocate of the use of technology to engage citizens, which he describes in his book, Citizenville.  But advocates of greater citizen engagement extend beyond political leaders to many frontline government executives at all levels – federal, state, and local.

At the federal level, President Obama has been an early advocate with his Open Government initiative, which encourages transparency, open data, and a willingness to engage citizens through multiply social media channels.  This has led to increased use of a range of strategies, including co-delivery, serious gaming strategies, and on-line prizes and contests.  Together, these strategies demonstrate the promise of the intersection of technology tools, problem-solving techniques, and the participatory spirit of citizen engagement.  One of the more prominent strategies is the use of “crowdsourcing.”   Crowdsourcing is an approach to public problem-solving that uses online tools to break a problem down into manageable tasks and engages people to voluntarily help produce those tasks. 

What Is Crowdsourcing?

A new IBM Center report, Using Crowdsourcing in Government, by Daren Brabham, University of Southern California, offers a nuanced understanding of just what is crowdsourcing and how government executives can use it to address specific types of public problems. Dr. Brabham says that an important distinction between crowdsourcing and other forms of online participation is that crowdsourcing “entails a mix of top-down, traditional, hierarchical process and a bottom-up, open process involving an online community.” 

The growing interest in “engaging the crowd” to identify or develop innovative solutions to public problems has been inspired by wildly successful efforts in the commercial world to design innovative consumer products or solve complex scientific problems, ranging from custom-designed T-shirts to mapping genetic DNA strands.  The Obama administration, as well as many state and local governments, have been adapting crowdsourcing techniques with some success. 

Four Strategic Approaches to Crowdsourcing

Dr. Brabham offers a strategic view of crowdsourcing and when it is useful to use to address public problems.  It also identifies four specific approaches, and describes why type is most useful for a given category of problem:

  • Approach 1:  Knowledge Discovery and Management.  This approach is most useful for information gathering and reporting problems through an on-line community into a common format.  For example, the reporting of earth tremors or potholes to a central source.  This approach could also be used to reporting conditions in parks or hiking trails, and for cataloging public art projects, as has been don in several cities across the country.
  • Approach 2:  Distributed Human Intelligence Tasking: This approach is most useful when human intelligence is more effective than computer analysis. It involves distributing “micro-tasks” that require human intelligence to solve, such as transcribing handwritten historical documents into electronic files.  For example, when the handwritten 1940 Census records were publicly released in 2012, the National Archives catalyzed the electronic tagging of more than 130 million records so they could be searchable on the web. More than 150,000 people volunteered to help.
  • Approach 3:  Broadcast Search: This approach is most useful when an agency is attempting to solve empirically provable solutions.  It involves broadcasting a problem-solving challenge widely on the internet and providing an award for solution.  For example, NASA offered a prize for an algorithm to predict solar flares.  The federal government sponsors a contest and awards web platform,, that various federal agencies can use to post their challenges.  To date, hundreds of diverse challenges have been posted, with thousands participating in providing proposed solutions.
  • Approach 4:  Peer-Vetted Creative Production: This approach is most useful when an agency is looking for innovative ideas when the answer is a matter of taste or market support.  It involves an on-line community that both proposes possible solutions and is empowered to collectively choose among the solutions.  For example, the Utah Transit Authority sponsored the Next Stop Design project, allowing citizens to design and vote on an ideal bus stop shelter. Nearly 3,200 people participated, submitting 260 high-quality architectural renderings, and there were more than 10,000 votes leading to a final selection.

Dr. Brabham notes that crowdsourcing is not just a collection of technology tools but rather is a strategic process that should be implemented in a series of steps that he divides into three phases:  planning,

implementation, and follow-through. In his report, he also offers detailed advice on steps to take. 

He concludes his report, noting: “For a term that did not exist seven years ago, crowdsourcing has enjoyed quite an enthusiastic embrace by government agencies in the U.S. and abroad. . . .In the spirit of participatory democracy, this is no doubt a good sign.”

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John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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