Wavelength: Crowdsourcing for Citizen Engagement

Rabii Haji is CAPAM’s Knowledge Exchange and Research Officer. ‘Wavelength’ articles explore ideas about issues and opportunities in public administration.  

“I have always maintained that the era of ‘government knows best’ is over. Your ideas, your concerns and your needs will be considered when drawing up an inclusive, balanced and fiscally responsible 2015 budget. The contributions we have already received show Malaysians – young and old – working with the government to develop inclusive policies that benefit everyone.”
Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, 2015.
“Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans -- scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs -- because the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.”
President Barack Obama, January 21, 2009.

Crowdsourcing is a form of open innovation that fosters active citizen participation and public contributions in order to ensure that policies, strategies and projects respond effectively to the needs and expectations of the citizenry. This method was first used by the private sector to tap into the untapped wisdom and talents of people outside of the organisation (J. Howe, 2006). It goes beyond organisational boundaries to solicit ideas and find solutions to complex challenges by involving the public. It builds on the exponential development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to reach more people, more effectively, and at less cost than traditional methods (M. Bott and al, 2014).
Governments can use crowdsourcing to respond to citizens’ calls for more transparency, accountability and openness. Such an initiative, if well used and implemented, may also help to re-build and strengthen trust and confidence between public administrations and citizens.
Jeff Howe (2006) defines crowdsourcing as “the act of a company or institution taking a function, once performed by employees, and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call”. Collaborative processes and innovative approaches are used to find solutions and methods for overcoming complicated challenges. Ideas originate outside the organisation and may be incorporated into effective policies and better service delivery. Crowdsourcing represents a paradigm shift from the classic public management style where citizens are considered passive service users, to a new model where citizens are more empowered and active agents and stakeholders in the decision- making process. In light of this new paradigm, crowdsourcing is utilized to effectively bridge the gap between governments and citizens by:
  • Opening and democratizing the processes of public policy making and public service delivery so that citizens can offer and contribute their insights and ideas to solve national and local issues that affect their daily lives.
  • Providing a better understanding of citizens’ demands and expectations so that services and policies respond effectively to needs and relevant circumstances.
  • Establishing priorities based on citizen insight and recommendations.
  • Fostering social innovation by opening up possibilities for all members of society to contribute their ideas and solutions, regardless of their gender, age, race, religion, geographical location or any other background factor.
Crowdsourcing can be moderated and managed through a number of means such as software platforms that facilitate and guide the crowd during the process (i.e. submission, enhancement, review and selection of the best contribution, as well as implementation and evaluation). In many cases, other participants could review crowd submissions and answers by making suggestions throughout on ways to improve or clarify the original submissions. Consequently, the submitted ideas evolve over a process of enhancement and enrichment based on the knowledge, experiences, backgrounds and opinions of participants. In some cases the crowd is also asked to rate the ideas.

Even when the collaborative benefits of crowdsourcing are significant to the public sector, it is very important to target and attract the right participants effectively, select the right topics and questions and use the appropriate software or platform for engagement.

Figure 1: Questions to consider while preparing a public crowdsourcing engagement
Aitamurto, Leiponen, and Tee (2011) find that crowdsourcing can be problematic when the issue or question submitted to the crowd is not well defined; and when feedback, meant to enable the crowd to better adapt solutions to the needs of the organisation, is not clear. Public institutions need to understand that crowdsourcing is a continuous process of engagement and requires ongoing stewardship, monitoring and interaction with the crowd. The academic literature stresses that for crowdsourcing engagements to be successful and productive, public institutions need to ensure that:
  • The availability and quality of ICTs are such that they attract and retain crowd participants as well as credible ideas and insights. Governments must ensure that the needs and perspectives of those who do not have access to ICTs are also taken into consideration.Unequal access to ICTs may affect the credibility of submitted ideas as being indicative of the views and interests of only a small group with access, rather than representative of the overall population (A. Sharma, 2010).
  • The crowdsourcing call is clear and well-defined to avoid confusion and wasting of resources. It must also be presented in an appealing and motivating way to keep the crowd continually engaged.
  • There is an investment in infrastructure upgrades in order to adapt to the specific needs and requirements of the challenge.
  • There are mechanisms in place that promote trust between the issuer and the crowd,and among participants. Governments and public institutions should be willing to share their official data in an open and transparent way and continually monitor and interact with the crowd (M. Bott et al, 2014).
  • Anonymous participation is possible so that people feel free to express and defend their ideas without fear of being attacked or bullied.
  • Crowdsourcing is not viewed as a replacement strategy for in-house labour with free or inexpensive work from the crowd (E. Seltzer et al, 2012). It is rather an opportunity to invite additional perspectives in the conversation and to involve citizens in shaping policies and services that directly affect them. 
In this context, many governments have recently launched projects and initiatives to actively involve their citizens in efforts to resolve national and local challenges and suggest new ideas to improve public policy design and service delivery. The following cases demonstrate and showcase how crowdsourcing platforms have helped to engage citizens in some countries.
1. India, MyGov
The government of India has recently launched a new online platform www.mygov.in to encourage citizens to share their ideas for solving public service delivery challenges and other public affairs issues with the central and state governments.

Citizens of India contribute to discussion fora to share and develop innovative and creative solutions1. For instance, a task posted on the website regarding the cleaning of the Ganga River, invited citizens to submit ideas and suggestions on global best practices for cleaning big rivers, and to design a new plan for the cleaning and redevelopment of the city of Varanasi, which borders the river.
In order to keep citizens continually engaged, the platform managers adopted a reward points system, where citizens earn credit points for posting their views and ideas. Selected participants are chosen periodically to present their ideas in person to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The success of this initiative encouraged India’s Prime Minister to commit to expanding the programme’s purview: “We want to expand the nature and scope of MyGov in the days to come. We also seek your feedback, suggestions and ideas for MyGov”2.

2. Singapore, REACH
REACH was established in October 2006 and, since 2009, has become Singapore’s main platform to engage and connect with citizens (www.reach.gov.sg). This platform allows Singaporeans to express their views and provide feedback and input on a number of public policy issues. REACH has three main objectives3:
  • Gather and gauge ground sentiments,
  • Reach out and engage citizens, and
  • Promote active citizenry through citizen participation and involvement.
REACH also serves as a national repository for public consultation papers from all government ministries and departments. Citizens can view these papers online and provide input and suggestions on the proposed policies. They can also suggest new ideas and initiatives, and call for the implementation of new policies and regulations. Some of the most recent online public consultation papers that were open for citizen commentary and input are:
  • Public consultation on the 2015 pre-budget document.
  • Public consultation on policy against harassment and bullying of the elderly in the workplace.
  • Public discussion on climate change.

3. Malaysia, Budget 2015
In 2014, the Malaysian government launched a crowdsourcing discussion on the Prime Minister’s website www.najibrazak/ bajet2015/ soliciting ideas and suggestions from citizens regarding the 2015 national budget. Citizens were asked to vote on a range of public policy directions and areas, including education, healthcare, economic development, housing and urban living, environment and agriculture, among others. The platform was built to enable users to express their views by clicking a like button or a dislike button.
Some of the submissions in the area of public service reform call for: more open government and data, better e-government services, more interaction on social media platforms, adoption of a unified project management tool for government procurement and a call for all public sector organisations to print material only in black and white. These submissions reveal a real public desire for more transparency, openness and accountability from civil servants in the conduct of public affairs.
4. Kenya, Huduma
In 2011, the Kenyan government in collaboration with Ushahidilaunched a crowdsourcing platform called “Huduma”. To encourage citizens to be more engaged in public affairs it asked for their input and feedback on public services delivery and management in six categories: education, governance, health, infrastructure, water and justice (M. Bott, 2012). Citizens submit reports and share their views and ideas with public administrations through the use of a Huduma social media account, an e-mail address or, very simply, by sending an SMS to a designated number.
5. United States, We the People
We the People is a platform that was launched by the White House in 2011, following President Barack Obama’s issuance of a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government in December 2009 (https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/). The platform enables American citizens to submit petitions with new ideas and suggestions regarding public policies and public services delivery. The White House responds to all petitions that successfully gather more than 25,000 signatures within 30 days, and organises conference calls with citizens who submitted the petition in order to discuss their ideas.
In a globalized world, governments alone cannot have or provide solutions to all complex challenges and issues. They have no choice but to actively engage citizens and to seek out new and innovative ways to strategize, implement, and deliver policies and services. They can take advantage of ongoing developments in technology and the rise of a participatory citizen culture, especially among the younger generation, to regain citizen confidence and trust by favouring more openness, transparency and inclusiveness. However important it is to engage citizens through crowdsourcing platforms to provide ideas and insights, implementation of policy and delivery of services that are reflective of their ideas is key.
Aitamurto, T, Leiponen and Tee, 2011. The Promise of Idea Crowdsourcing – Benefits, Contexts, Limitations. Draft whitepaper. USA: Nokia.

Bott Maja, Bjorn-Soren Gigler and Young Gregor, March 2014, The role of Crowdsourcing for Better Governance in Fragile State Contexts, World Bank, Washington D-C.

Bott Maja and Young Gregor, 2012, The Role of Crowdsourcing for Better Governance in International Development, PRAXIS The Fletcher Journal of Human Security, vol XXVII.

Howe Jeff, June 2006, The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Wired Magazine.

Seltzer Ethan and Mahmoudi Dillon, December 2012, Citizen Participation, Open Innovation, and Crowdsourcing: Challenges and Opportunities for Planning, Journal of Planning Literature.

Sharma Ankit, 2010, Crowdsourcing Critical Success Factor Model: Strategies to harness the collective intelligence of the crowd, Working Paper.

Government of India: www.mygov.in

Malaysia’s Prime Minister: www.najibrazak/bajet2015/

Singapore’s Prime Minister: www.reach.gov.sg

White House: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/

1 Another advantage of this website is that it allows non-English speakers to use a virtual Hindi alphanumeric keyboard.

2 Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, Twitter account, visited on February 2, 2015: https://twitter.com/narendramodi/status/492950194485350400

3 REACH website: https://www.reach.gov.sg/AboutREACH/Overview.aspx, visited on December 5th 2014.

4 Ushahidi which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a global non-profit technology company whose mission is to change the way information flows in the world and empower people to make an impact with open source technologies, cross-sector partnerships, and ground breaking ventures.