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What can government learn from crowdsourcing? 1/2

Last week I posted about how crowdfunding initiatives have been facing headwind in Finland owing much to the helplessness of authorities, who seem paralysed when coming into contact with new ways of harnessing the internet. Our series of Fact Cards have showcased some of the interesting examples globally. These projects usually take the form of social improvement or not-for-profit activities but also small-scale businesses have taken advantage of the opportunity, and funding for developing physical products is becoming increasingly popular. As a result a new market has emerged as a viable alternative for sourcing capital or manpower to support innovative, entrepreneurial ideas and ventures.

The reason for posting these examples has been to document the ongoing spread of a phenomenon emerging (mostly online) over the last few years and to answer – and raise – questions about crowdfunding and sourcing and how these tools could be harnessed and used to bridge the gap between government and citizens. A traditional feedback form, even if an electronic one, is not enough any more: Governments need to listen and communicate with citizens instead of ignoring them. Citizens are not happy with only reporting on street lights that are out.

After the Finnish municipal election on 28 October, the focus wasn’t so much on the newly-elected municipal councillors, but on the low turnout of voters: Only 58,3% of those entitled to vote showed up at the polling stations (low for Finland). The fingers were pointing towards politicians immersed in their own game not being able to communicate with the voters. Many of them still seem to think that the role of a citizen ends after they’ve cast their ballot in the box.

baanaBaana skate ramp after the city dug an moat around it in response to citizen complaints about noise.

The city of Helsinki employs about 40 000 people being one of the largest employers in Finland. The city consists of its citizens and exists because of them, so would it harm to ask how they feel about things happening in their front yard? When the city continues to fail to take notice of its people, things like Ravintolapäivä happen. Or the Baana Skate-gate.

One of the reasons we have been looking at crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platforms is that in its current state, municipal government isn’t very appealing to citizens. In peoples’ minds, city planning does not compete with the education department, government competes with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Justin Bieber, etc. And this is what it looks like from the point of view of a citizen:

1351489135396Image borrowed from Helsingin Sanomat/Lasse Rantanen.

Instead of trying to force people into a system created two hundred years ago, why not adapt and find people where they already are? Public services should be taken to 21st century rather than pushing citizens back to the 19th century. The tools for building more collaborative relationships in public decision-making exist, it is merely a question of taking advantage of them.

Here’s where the Fact Cards come in: The internet enables sharing information, collaborative decision-making and sharing and contributing human resources and rather than opposing it, government should learn and take advantage of it. To formulate a synthesis of all the platforms we’ve looked into so far, this spreadsheet comes in handy. The first tab lists all the platforms we found relevant in terms of the Brickstarter project and runs through the key elements of each platform. Roughly 1/3 is focused on crowdfunding and the remaining 2/3 on crowdsourcing. Its good to bare in mind that our sample of 27 platforms/projects is not even the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more existing online and more emerging every day.

Screen shot 2012-11-08 at 11.17.41 AM

Another general notion of our sample is that except for a few cases, all the examples share a bottom-up approach, where citizens independently form groups and are actively working with projects from the grassroots upward. Coincidentally almost all of these are projects not involving government. The top-down examples are more traditional and often involve the government in a supportive role. These are also the examples most likely to have only a low or medium level of engagement from the citizens. This means that they are mainly used as passive channels to collect (mainly negative) feedback which is then processed by the government, not enabling citizens to actively take part in decision-making.

The second tab in our spreadsheet looks at the platforms in different categories: Services like Kickstarter and Spacehive are great examples of crowdfunding. Joukkoenkeli and Neighborland are about crowdsourcing ideas. The likes of Avoin Ministeriö, Aloitekanava and Demokratia.fi mediate information to and from government, but are rather passive.

Projects like Osallistuva Budjetointi and Stadin aikapankki enable more active participation from the citizen point of view. Hukkatila is an excellent example of collaborative decision-making and activism without an internet platform. And when looking at all these examples, it’s good to bear in mind that the web didn’t invent crowdsourcing or crowdfunding – it just made it easier.

The third tab in the spreadsheet divides the different examples into four dimensions (government, non-government, active, passive) and the image below shows how these platforms and projects are positioned in relation to these dimensions.

Kuvankaappaus 2012-11-16 kello 16.38.06
Keeping in mind our narrow sample, it’s still pretty fair to say that there is more traffic on the Non-government side. The little that is happening on the government side, is mainly below the horizontal line. What is empty and lacking content is the upper right corner – and that’s where a platform like Brickstarter would be positioned.

The way Brickstarter is sketched borrows many of its features from social media such as comments, badges, votes/’likes’ and so on. Collaborative decision-making can imitate social media, and it should: I bet Facebook has more daily visitors than all municipal websites in Finland combined. A modular approach – using Vimeo to embed video, using Google Maps, comments from Facebook, or for example using Holvi to run crowdfunding campaigns suggests to government that services can be built extremely quickly and securely – and so prototyping public services becomes not only possible but desirable, compared to slow-moving government IT projects.

The second part for this post will be published Monday 19 November.

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