Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Crowdsourcing government policy and service delivery improvements

Are many heads better than one (or a few)?

In the past the answer was often no, because the mechanisms used to collect, collate, rate and assess the suggestions and recommendations of hundred, thousands or millions of people were cumbersome and time-consuming.

In fact whilst our society was originally built on the democratic principle of crowdsourcing (where we ask what everyone thinks then pick the most popular candidate or solution), except in very small communities it has become impossible to place more than a few major issues or decisions in front of the population for comment.

However the internet has begun empowering organisations to consult their customers and government their citizens in more rapid and effective methods.

These tools, often termed 'ideas markets' allow large groups of people to comment on proposals or suggest ideas very rapidly (matching similar ideas to reduce duplication). They also allow these groups to prioritise these suggestions by voting them up or down and adding further comments.

Dell launched such a site in 2007 named IdeaStorm to source product improvement ideas from its millions of customers. IdeaStorm now provides more than 60% of new product ideas and improvements for Dell, helping to turn around the company's declining market share and adding several major new products to the company's line-up.

In fact Dell was so impressed that it used the same concept a second time, opening a similar site named IdeaStorm for Healthcare and Life Sciences, an online community for collecting ideas on how to improve health care with IT solutions.

Other companies have used similar sites to listen and better understand their customers and prioritise suggestions. This includes organisations as diverse as Starbucks, Sun, Nokia, Sony and Random House.

It also includes the US's President Obama, whose Change.gov site ran an ideas market termed the Citizen's briefing book before his inauguration to collect and prioritise suggestions for the top issues he should focus on once he took office. Over 70,000 people participated, providing tens of thousands of ideas, prioritised by over half a million votes.

President Obama repeated this experiment with his recent virtual Town Hall Meeting, allowing citizens to suggest questions for him to answer. It drew over 92,000 participants who asked over 103,000 questions and cast 1.7 million votes, using freely available software from Google.

It is now inexpensive and fast to establish an ideas market. Little IT involvement is necessary as many do not require internal IT resources (servers and network) and most support moderation and other controls to prevent inappropriate suggestions or comments. Commercial out-of-the-box solutions include Google Moderator (used by the US President) to UserVoice, Get Satisfaction, IdeaScale and Salesforce Ideas (used by Dell)

Just like other suggestions processes ideas markets can be non-binding. Dell doesn't implement all the ideas it received - and uses the opportunity to explain why it cannot implement some suggestions.

President Obama only directly answered the questions he and his advisors chose to answer, but used the other 103,000 to improve their understanding of public concerns. I also expect they will answer a number of further questions through their actions over the next twelve months.

So could we use this process right now for Australian government?

Frankly I don't see why not.

Our citizens are some of the most highly educated in the world. We already ask them to engage in many ways, from providing their stories on road safety, to submitting questions to Ministers, to participating in community cabinets or expressing their views via consultation submissions or, recently, via online blogs (such as by the DBCDE).

Into the future I expect to see Australian governments provide even more opportunities for citizens to engage and contribute with even lower barriers to entry. This also means increasing workloads for public servants, who need to collate and prioritise the responses received.

So why not build in the mechanisms for citizens to collate and prioritise suggestions themselves, improving consultation outcomes while reducing government costs?

It is a win-win scenario here, as it is overseas.

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