Will Crowdsourcing Public Opinion Lead to Government Action?


As if in response to yesterday's story about a Princeton scientist's hope to improve government through crowdsourcing, Washington has launched a series of democratic idea incubators that aim to align government action with public opinion. Taking advantage of a platform called IdeaScale, these open government initiatives enable the public to submit and vote on ideas for anything from state budgets and federal transparency to health care priorities and education. While this may sound like big step forward for the typically tech- agnostic public sector, the results, at least so far, demonstrate why crowdsourcing may be an ineffective government tool.

Crowdsourcing relies on the assumption that the public will be able to produce better ideas, or in this case, at least ones the government has yet considered. But lawmakers can't pass bills simply because they've captured public opinion—legislation today is so complicated that it's perhaps beyond the public's capacity to offer a fix. Take the FCC's Broadband IdeaScale page, in which it asks voters to brainstorm ideas on creating a National Broadband Plan. Of the 249 proposals submitted, the most popular reads: "Bring the United States mobile broadband pricing in line with the rest of the world." The submission includes a helpful list of countries that provide less expensive Internet access. Other popular ideas range from "catching up with Korea" to "promot[ing] telecommuting—reduce time and energy waste." As you might guess, these ideas are not exactly novel, and they are absolutely not easy to enact.

Imagine crowdsourcing during the health care debate this past year. Would it have offered any better solutions? The FCC actually had set one up, though it doesn't seem to have gained much traction. The most popular solution? An idea regarding having more fluid communication between hospitals about medical records. Well obviously! How about tacking lower premiums and banning "preexisting conditions" onto that list? The problem is that government 2.0 crowdsourcing may only attract the most pie-in-the-sky ideas—ideas that most everyone agrees with (thus they become the most popular), but for one reason or another, are unlikely to find any ground in Washington without an army of lawyers and lots of backroom negotiations. What the government needs isn't more lofty suggestions ("End the income tax!"), but grounded ideas on how to actually get things done in congress. Unfortunately, solutions to these issues won't come from public opinion.

And don't forget: The government is already "crowdsourcing," at least in the same way that IdeaScale gauges public opinion. It's called polling. But just because the government knows the top priorities on the minds of Americans (e.g. the economy, jobs, Afghanistan, etc.), doesn't mean it knows how to solve these issues, even if it harnesses e-citizen power through crowdsourcing.

My two cents? If you have a solution to any of these problems, you should be running for office—not submitting probably-left-unread ideas on a message board.

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  • Robert Ezekiel

    I really believe in our form of government. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf because we believe in them and their values. Our Senators and Congressmen are supposed to act with their constituents best interest in mind as well as what is best for the country. I would hope that our leaders would not just make decisions based on public opinion. Sometimes the best decisions are the hard ones to make and take a great deal of maturity to come to. Letting every citizen cast a vote on every decision would be disastrous.

    I think that CrowdSourcing Government to Solve Issues faster is a strong possibility but I believe that the final decisions need to be left up to our elected leaders and not the mob texting in their votes.

    MOB Rules government does not work.

    If crowdsourcing is used for idea generation then it could be a good thing. I am very interested in at the moment in using Crowdsourcing for disaster preparedness , disaster relief, instant information and instances where having multiple sources giving real time information seems very valuable.

  • Robert A.

    IMHO it will. Governments do and should take actions in their self-interest which itself are mutually inclusive towards the larger interest of the crowds. Regarding IdeaScale failures, to tell you it simply started as a customer feedback solution which failed to take off in California. The product has it own set of problems which deem it NOT FIT for crowdsourcing 'unbiased' public opinion. Especially, in sensitive application like public-policy because any citizen could easily hijack the system to promote his/her own idea/thought.

    @Mike, public opinion matters a lot whether it pertains to Afghan, Iraq or anything else. It does even in the current form of Government. Public today is largely driven by information given by media, and not exactly the parameters/information available with the Government.

    Robert A.

  • mike

    "Will crowdsourcing public opinion lead to government action?"

    Probably not. Governments take when action when it's in their self-interest. Public opinion matters very little, if at all (witness Afghanistan, Iraq, health care, bailouts, etc.).

  • Orrin

    Government (in the US at least) is also supposed to be Majority Rules, Minority Rights. Many of the examples I have seen in crowdsourcing tends to focus on what the majority deems fit and often neglects the minority. In the case of an operating system that is fine, but when it comes to governments impacting people's freedoms and well being it is quite different.