Unleash the power of crowdsourcing in the policy cycle

As open innovation gains traction in the public sector, implementing fruitful techniques and maximising citizen engagement will be crucial to the success of crowdsourcing for policymakers.

The potential of crowdsourcing to harness the collective wisdom with the aid of emerging technologies has fuelled collaborative decision-making and contributed to innovative outcomes.

While this phenomenon is commonly applied in business contexts, it is also steadily gaining traction in the public sector. Governments around the world are jumping on the crowdsourcing bandwagon to not only source ideas and services from the public, but also meet the growing demand for greater transparency and democratic participation.

Open collaboration (OC) is one of the most widely used forms of crowdsourcing in the public domain, according to Araz Taeihagh, Assistant Professor of Public Policy from the School of Social Sciences at the Singapore Management University.

In this format, contributions from the participants are voluntary and there is no monetary compensation. Therefore, the scale of crowds could vary depending on the quality of engagement and reputation of the government. If effectively managed, OC can mobilise the crowd’s intelligence for setting agendas and defining problems.

For instance, the Malaysian administration has been using OC to crowdsource ideas for its National Budget. The government has a special website where citizens can share their thoughts on how public funds should be deployed. Other than just giving ideas, citizens can also vote for or against a suggestion.

Exploring the full potential of other crowdsourcing forms

Although the public sphere has experienced some successful crowdsourcing campaigns, concerns have been raised on the true value and role of crowdsourcing in the policy cycle.

One of the reasons is that most policymakers only use OC, while neglecting other forms of crowdsourcing, according to Taeihagh’s paper Examination of crowdsourcing as a tool for policy making presented on 30 June at the 3rd International Conference on Public Policy, which was held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Bearing in mind each stage of the well-established policy cycle, Taeihagh has identified two other unique IT-mediated forms of crowdsourcing that policymakers can use to unleash the full potential of crowdsourcing.

  • Virtual Labour Marketplaces (VLMs)

In VLMs, individuals can self-select their work and execute it in exchange for monetary compensation. These tasks can be either online or offline in nature. The crowd of labourers are anonymous and thought to excel in micro tasks, such as survey participation and document translation. One such example is CrowdFlower. By breaking down the job into mini tasks that the crowd can easily take up, its more than five million workers can clean and process big data sets from organisations quickly.

Given that the contributors in VLMs can do offline work, Taeihagh said that policymakers can use them for policy implementation and policy enforcement initiatives. The VLM workforce can also assist in policy evaluation, as the individuals would be capable of carrying out market research on the ground.

  • Tournament Crowdsourcing (TC)

Organisations can post specific problems and create a competitive environment for participants to come up with the best solution. Platforms such as InnoCentive and Kaggle offer such collaboration. Taeihagh pointed out that unlike VLMs, the crowds are smaller, have more specialised skills and sometimes choose not to remain anonymous.

Policymakers can use this approach to generate competing policy alternatives and develop useful metrics for policy evaluation. The specialised skills of the crowd such as mathematics can also play a significant role in identifying problems.

Optimising citizen engagement

Apart from understanding the best practices of different crowdsourcing forms to reap maximum benefits, policymakers must also note that these forms could become useless if they are not adequately supported by quality citizen participation.

The Boaty McBoatface episode is a classic example. The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the public for ideas to name its new research vessel. The majority of the citizens responded with their support for a ridiculous name – Boaty McBoatface.

NERC had no choice but to ignore the public’s voice, and eventually named the vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, a name that ranked fourth in the contest. One of the main reasons attributed to the failure of this campaign was the inability of NERC to effectively engage with the citizens. This resulted in the public not taking the campaign seriously.

“By involving the public in every step of the journey, they will feel valued and therefore will give productive inputs,” said Taeihagh.

A positive case study is when the Ministry of the Environment in Finland turned to crowdsourcing to seek solutions for regulating the use of snowmobiles and ATVs. It invited the public to share their problems with off-road traffic. After mapping out specific issues to address, the ministry asked the public to propose ideas or solutions. Once this was done, the citizens along with an expert panel evaluated and chose the best solution.

Unlike the Boaty McBoatface naming fiasco, the Finnish citizens were involved throughout the policymaking process. This encouraged them to offer responsible solutions, making the experiment a success.

Moving towards a digitalised collective future

With interconnectivity expected to grow at an astonishing rate, the impact of collective intelligence will only get bigger and wider. As crowdsourcing is a rapidly evolving technology, policymakers have only scratched the surface, said Taeihagh. 

He highlighted several next-generation crowdsourcing techniques that could help government leaders tap into the wisdom of citizens and accelerate innovation.

  • Crowdsensing

This uses the sensing capabilities of various mobile devices such as smartphones and wearables to passively gather local information from an individual’s environment. Specialised data such as pollution levels and traffic levels can be easily obtained through this technique.

  • Situated crowdsourcing

This involves more active participation, where a large task is divided into smaller ones and assigned to the public. Participants can use physical installations, such as kiosks, to carry out their tasks in their free time.

  • Spatial crowdsourcing

This requires participants to fulfil a task by travelling to a specific location. For example, if a crowdsourcer wants to get information on a national event that is taking place in different cities, he can issue a query on a spatial crowdsourcing server. Consequently, the server will allocate the task to workers based around those locations.

Although some of these next-generation developments are still mainly adopted in the business domain, policymaking will surely benefit from the application of different crowdsourcing techniques. It will be interesting to observe how policymakers will effectively introduce these new techniques to various stages of the policy cycle and maintain optimal citizen engagement in the future.


This is an event coverage piece of the 3rd International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP) 2017 by Samyukta Raman.