In the wake of the UK’s EU referendum and the US election of Donald Trump, Network chair Beth Simone Noveck provides a vision of governmental crowdsourcing of expertise in The Guardian. She argues that the embrace of “charismatic demagogues” is at least in part the result of the public’s lack of trust in institutions, which are seen as remote entities staffed with “experts” who possess little interest in the opinions, skills and experiences of citizens.
“Citizen engagement is largely confined to elections, opinion polls or jury service – asking people what they feel, not what they know and can do – even though democracy should be rule by, for and with the people.
However, this dichotomy between equality and expertise, between democracy and professionalism, is false.”
Drawing on success stories from across sectors, Noveck argues that, “for all forms of engagement to be more effective,” governments need to move away from viewing citizens as only a source of uninformed feelings or preferences, and instead “move to smarter crowdsourcing, which uses technology to make opportunities to participate more visible, and integrates them into how decisions get made.”
How do we transition to such a system? Noveck offers five steps:
“First, we have to replicate and scale successful examples. The Smarter Crowdsourcing for Zika project, organized by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Governance Lab, coordinated ministries of health, sanitation, and modernization across four governments in Latin America, for a four-month curated crowdsourcing effort. The project matched hundreds of international experts to specific problems associated with Zika, ranging from trash collection to long term care, for a series of six online conferences designed to inform government responses to mosquito-borne viruses.
Second, we must overcome the assumption that the purpose of engagement is purely to build legitimacy. It is not. If the goal of participation is simply communication between government, citizens and interest groups, then we miss the knowledge building aspects of crowdsourcing. These enable us to find missing information, generate alternate hypotheses, undertake tasks, get more eyeballs on a problem, or boots on the ground.
Third, we should move beyond the assumption that participation must be mass-based. Instead, we should construct a range of different practices that speak to people’s knowledge, experience and passions to spot problems, design policies, work on drafts or participate in implementation.
Fourth, in an era of networks, we must ensure that engagement is no longer limited to interest groups – NGOs, unions, women’s groups – and, instead, look to broader networks of people with innovative ideas to contribute. For the Zika project, representatives of the World Health Organization took part, but so did a researcher from Pakistan, who is using predictive analytics to spot dengue, and a social entrepreneur from Brooklyn, who has designed an app to coordinate school children to pick up trash where water collects. Finally, there is too little understanding of the models of engagement. We need to accelerate social science research on who participates and why if we are to design effective engagement practices that make government work better.”