The government's latest crowdsourcing exercise came to a close yesterday with thousands of ideas submitted by the public on ways the government could make savings and deliver more efficient services.
The Treasury's spending challenge, which was set up to give the public the opportunity to "help shape the way government works" and to submit ideas that could be used in the October spending review, elicited more than 45,000 ideas in just over three months in areas such as civil service, central government, health and education.
The first two weeks of the scheme were open only to public sector workers. The public was also invited to rate ideas on their potential to save money while impacting least on public services and those that reach the top of the pile will be reviewed and investigated by government officials.
The government's last foray into crowdsourcing – essentially outsourcing through an open call to a group or "crowd" – was denounced as a "sham" by critics after it transpired that none of the public's suggestions had been taken on board.
The exercise, which was hoped to widen participation, instead brought forward suggestions including cutting the foreign aid budget and banning immigration. In turn, government departments were forced to restate current policy or sidestep the issue.
Although the episode highlighted some of the limitations of crowdsourcing, experts believe that the method, when done correctly and with a clear purpose, can benefit the public sector.
Promotes public participation
"Crowdsourcing is good when you have information that is distributed among the population as a whole or a specific group that you want to access," says Simon Burall, director of Involve, an organisation which promotes public participation in government.
"The problem the government has run into is that it hasn't taken the time to be clear about why it is using this method. It can be used to get information not held centrally, for example knowledge about where money is being wasted which is only known to specific officials doing particular jobs. The danger is that if government isn't clear about why it is asking the public to contribute, it ends up creating the suspicion that all it is trying to do is to build legitimacy for cuts."
Burall says that proper design and clarity of the process and targeting a large but specific group are key to successfully using crowdsourcing to engage with the public, which the government is only just beginning to learn. By opening the exercise to public sector workers and looking at all of the submitted ideas individually, the Treasury's spending challenge has the opportunity to dig out ideas from those who hold more knowledge.
"There are very clear examples where crowdsourcing would be useful, whether for central or local government – for example where the spending challenge was open to public sector workers. You need to use crowdsourcing where people have specific knowledge. I'd say they are a more relevant for public sector workers as they have very detailed knowledge," says Burall.
"You need to use crowdsourcing where people have specific knowledge, for example doctors or nurses or probation officers. Or even the offenders themselves," says Burall. "You could and ask them very specific questions on outcomes for patients or how to reduce offending rates. Or it could be a specific population or area. For example, asking people about hotspots of anti-social behaviour."
While the Treasury would not be drawn into commenting on whether its crowdsourcing exercise could lead to yet more embarrassment, it hopes that the ratings system will allow the public to wheedle out the more significant submissions. "We have a commitment to look at the top rated ideas," says a Treasury spokeswoman.
"On the 20th October the chancellor will reveal where those public ideas have been taken on board. It's part of the spending review process. The first two weeks were open only to public sector workers and every single one of those ideas will be looked at by government officials. The public have rated ones that they think have value and have risen to the top – the ones with most potential. We'll invite departments to look that those."
Perry Walker, head of participation at the New Economics Foundation, says that crowdsourcing works well for ideas, less well for how you develop them.
"Crowd sourcing is one form of many ways of public engagement but you have to be clear about what it is you're doing," says Burall. It's perfectly legitimate to say at the beginning that we'll look at the ideas and will apply this set of criteria and if none of them fit that criteria we won't use them. If you don't make it clear the public feel they aren't actually involved. The government has not been clear enough about how it is framing them. One of problems is, which happens with quite a lot of new methodology is that they don't think about why they're doing it. You start with what you want to do first and then choose the method," says Burall.
But properly designing the process from the beginning can open up new ways of using ideas, for example to further deliberate and create conversation around an issue. Burall suggests that bringing in a group of the public to design the underlying principles of an exercise, opening it to the public, allowing it to be judged by experts and then giving it back to the public, will introduce more accountability and discussion.
Other ideas for the future of crowdsourcing include using groups to take on some of the functions of a workforce.