Crowdsourcing and the Public Arena

Systems of democracy were created to allow public decisions to be made with the participation of people who lived in the democratically-governed society. The concepts of participation were always limited, however, by constraints of time and geography, by assumptions about the capacity of elites to govern better than the masses, by social limitations on the roles permitted for women, by exclusion of various “minority” groups, by connection of civic privileges with property ownership, and so forth. In the history of modern democracies, the trends have moved slowly but steadily toward the elimination of official barriers to participation, from allowing women to vote and eliminating poll taxes, to voting rights legislation and lowering of the voting age. (Today, England is considering lowering the voting age to 16.)

Now, technology has also expanded participatory options for individuals. A great deal of government information is available online, unfiltered by interpreters. Internet activists can organize across geographic boundaries, provide public opinions to elected officials in real time, and mobilize individuals as issues are battled over. The breadth, speed and wide availability of online communication are opening the possibility of sharing ideas in the public arena the way they have begun to be implemented in business practices through “crowdsourcing.”

“Crowdsourcing” is the idea that rather than of assigning a task to individuals or groups selected by the interested organization, instead, the task is thrown out to any audience to work on, usually through an open, online announcement or request. This approach presumes that the ideas, knowledge, imagination, etc. of this virtual, spontaneous group will generate the best solutions and will lead to the work being done by people most suited for it. The term is attributed to journalist Jeff Howe, who explains the concept and its applications in the business world in his 2008 book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business.

The results of crowdsourcing can be seen in examples such as Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute information. With millions of entries, this platform has become one of the most comprehensive sources of information online, without a structured editorial process or permanent team of researchers or writers. Problems of accuracy and bias are said to be self-correcting as the work is reviewed by thousands of users who can correct errors or flag misuses of the system. In another instance, Netflix awarded $1 million in an open competition to a team of outsiders who figured out how to improve the movie distributor’s recommendations of films to its members.

The strengths and limits of crowdsourcing are now being studied in numerous circles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted a challenge in December 2009 to see how social networking and other web systems could find information by launching 10 red weather balloons around the country and awarding a $40,000 prize to the team who found all of them first. Participants used a range of strategies, including paid incentives for information and misinformation campaigns, to try to beat the competition. A group from MIT won, locating the balloons in less than nine hours (see coverage at “MIT Wins DARPA’s Great Balloon Hunt”).

Crowdsourcing can play the same types of roles in the public arena. Federal Computer Week put it this way in an October 2009 article: “New Web 2.0 tools and social-media technology — such as blogs, wikis and … idea application(s) — make crowdsourcing possible. Agencies can use Web applications like an interactive suggestion box that is unbound by time or geographical constraints. Crowdsourcing tools are not a substitute for elections, referendum questions or face-to-face public meetings, but they are a tool public officials can use to gauge opinion and solicit input.”

Crowdsourcing will continue to stretch the definitions of “leadership.” Information sources become more diffuse; the roles of designated “experts” are challenged by “amateurs” and outsiders. The skills of listening, evaluating information, encouraging participation, hearing from neglected sources, all become more important for people in leadership roles. The authority that allows imposing processes and decisions will be questioned more, so the need for leading consensus and collaboration will increase.

Some critics of the crowdsourcing concept point out that it is still individuals who come up with the solutions. (For example, see Dan Woods, The Myth of Crowdsourcing, at Forbes.com.) Rather than a contradiction, these analyses point out that the point of crowdsourcing is largely to get the right people working on the problem. Most problems aren’t solved by someone working alone, even when problems are approached within an institution. Crowdsourcing may be a way to assemble the best team without the artificial barriers of departments, organizations, industries or sectors. When the work is done, the team dissolves and goes on to the next activity, rather than outliving its usefulness and dragging talented people into pointless meetings that do not tap their abilities.

To take advantage of these external, fluid resources, organizations will need to adapt from a “closed” structure to an “open” one. Leaders will need to be able to balance outside input and inside staff, modify organizational structures rapidly to take advantage of new opportunities, and motivate increasingly diverse people. Leaders will also benefit from being able to clarify their goals while keeping open an ever-increasing range of strategies to accomplish the goals.

Few observers think that the ability to capitalize on open innovation and information will eliminate structured companies, agencies, or organizations. But how successful institutions and leaders function will be very different from a decade ago.