What can government learn from crowdsourcing? 2/2

All of the examples presented in our Fact Cards have features that could be adopted, one way or another, by public services to develop public decision-making more ‘public’. When building a platform, a number of things need to happen already at the stage when the foundations are laid. Fundamental questions need to be discussed before a platform like Brickstarter can go live. The list below is not finished and there are more things to be added. There are numerous open questions without an answer, but how to come to a mutual understanding?

Services like Kickstarter, indiegogo, and Spacehive make a living by retaining a percentage of the transactions for funding projects featured on their website. But how is a public service like Brickstarter funded? If we were to play with the idea that each Finn gets to spend 1% of their tax money for their own preferred purpose, could a portion of that be retained for running the platform if all money were distributed through that? One might argue that a public service is not meant to make profit, but there are operational costs to be covered. If the service was self-financed, maybe some tax exemptions could be applied.

What are the risks for running such a service and how are they mitigated? When money is involved, it unfortunately attracts those who are looking for personal benefits rather than shared value. When it comes to investing money, for example buying stock in a company, investors are protected through financial mechanisms which are then supervised by the Financial Supervisory Authority. But if instead of buying stock a citizen chips in 10€ for renovating a local playground? 10€ is not a big loss, but when 100 people donate, it becomes 1000€. Who is overseeing the projects and making sure they are carried through and that the crowdfunded money goes where it is supposed to go.

IMG_3431A recent (3 November) gamified article in Helsingin Sanomat about the bureaucracy and challenges of building a skate park in Helsinki.

If crowdfunding were allowed for non-profit projects serving the ‘public good’, a question follows: What can be considered ‘public good’? What is ‘public’ and how to estimate the effects of the funds collected and distributed? Is street furniture in a block public and does it serve a big enough mass to be legible for crowdfunding? If a group decides to work on a cultural project and sell tickets in advance to fund the costs, are the sellers and buyers for the pre-purchased tickets subject to VAT? Does the seller need to be a registered entity (association, business, etc.)? Can the product be immaterial, e.g. culture? What if people are not satisfied with the ‘product’ they have purchased. Does consumer protection legislation apply in these cases? Some rules need to apply to the ‘trading’ but once again, it should be kept as open as possible.

Another set of questions rises regarding project delivery. Who is responsible for delivering the project and who defines what is the right way to deliver a project? Internal conflicts might affect group dynamics and set the project at stake. If a municipality engages citizens in decision-making on a more deeper level, resources must be allocated in guidance and stewardship.

In terms of enabling innovation and new business development, existing services like Kickstarter  and Smallknot have done a great job in providing small business ventures a tiny bit of cash to test their products and develop them further. These are the types of companies who wouldn’t necessary get a loan from a bank, but might be the next big thing. In a stagnating economy, innovative projects and businesses are what the financial system would need.


Once your idea is out, it’s there for good. If someone posts an idea or a product online, is it protected by copyright and how is intellectual property protected? Are the ideas and opportunities available for everyone to take and develop further or does everyone sign an open NDA upon registration? Copyrights and patents might seem old-fashioned nowadays, but these questions are very current when more high-tech applications are available.

A recent study conducted at the City of Turku Urban Research and Statistics Unit shows a clear demand for e-democracy and how Finnish Municipalities have not been successful in engaging citizens in decision-making online. According to Statistics Finland, almost 80% of Finns used the internet daily in 2011. With more and more open data available online, it is fair to say, that citizens should be allowed to be part of the circle deciding how the society should be developed. Using the internet as a tool and enabler, it doesn’t mean that there should be no life outside of it. Quite the opposite: it should be used to help coordinate projects that are then carried out in real life. Finding a balance between online and offline is key. Looking your neighbour in the eye and enabling peer discussion as well as debates is not only about city planning, it’s about building trust and a culture of collaboration.

And finally: Who actually decides? Finland is a welfare state with comprehensive public services. These are funded through comparatively high taxes. In a way, the Finnish government ‘crowdfunds’ large sums of money from citizens but citizens don’t get to decide directly how this money is distributed, except through representation. However, representation does not exclude participation. There are people all around Finland rolling up their sleeves and getting things done much more efficiently than their local officials who can’t see what’s happening right under their eyes.

As people get more active, the public sector responds by another set of rules and guidelines. And creating more rules simply enhances the NIMBYism. But if citizens are able to put ideas forward and be actively working with them, that would reverse NIMBYism into YIMBYism. Who makes the decision about their neighbourhood seems a simple question, but what if a neighbourhood could take advantage of the internet to receive funding from anywhere? Whose opinion weighs more and can someone from Munkkiniemi in Helsinki have a say in the local issues in Herttoniemi? And what if someone suggests a dog park to be built on the same spot where their neighbour has just suggested an outdoor gym? How are issues of mutual exclusivity dealt with? It will either be one suggestion or the other, it cannot be both.

Screen shot 2012-09-05 at 12.39.17 PMWhy isn’t social media among listed when the city asks how citizens follow municipal decision making?

While city of Helsinki is still doing ‘participatory democracy’ through web surveys like shown above, for example the UK Cabinet Office has moved forward in development and GDS, Government Digital Services is an excellent example on how things can be done differently within government.

Instead of citizens being turned away from government, government should actively seek ways of mobilising citizens and engaging them in public debate and allowing the public to participate at their own initiative. A dialog and a brainstorm are not the same thing.

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