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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.