The government of Canada’s 2013 budget pledged to reduce public service travel costs via digital infrastructure, notably telepresence capabilities for video conferencing. In 2014, the U.S. federal government went a step further and crowdsourced the challenge of more efficient travel directly to staff.
The former approach is emblematic of traditional public administration: listening to ideas from the outside while formulating solutions on the inside. Strategies are announced and results may, eventually, become known, either communicated on the government’s terms or prodded by an audit or politicized incident. The U.S. initiative, by contrast, is indicative of a Gov 2.0 mindset premised on broadened participation and empowerment, obviously greatly facilitated by online platforms and tools. Both inside, and much more so outside government, crowdsourcing is a movement that is gaining steam in ways that can be large and systemic, or small and specific.
By far the most significant example of crowdsourcing is the Internet itself and the advent of open source technologies that have enabled the development of cloud computing systems and operating platforms for social media and mobile devices that are increasingly open, interoperable and adaptable. Even Apple, the most notable proprietary player (and still crowdsourcing to a community of apps developers) is not fully self-reliant, as the recent acknowledgment of a major security flaw in its own operating system stemmed from external discovery.
Across a range of settings, leveraging the wisdom of crowds, to invoke the parlance of Clay Shirky, creates enormous potential for both innovation and investment. As do many start-up companies, several Olympic athletes competing in Sochi financed their training and travel via crowd-funding initiatives and undoubtedly many more shall do so en route to Rio in 2016. One Montreal-based group of entrepreneurs has even sought to give flight to crowdsourcing, literally, by creating a new travel booking platform (FlightFox) where the client posts a request and online intermediaries do the rest.
For government, open data and apps competitions are visible, likeminded examples, but many micro-sized initiatives also suggest a more participative and collective future. In one modest bid to improve service and stimulate creativity, the city of Boston has crowdsourced the music tracks for call centre waiting to the public, featuring local artists in doing so. On a larger scale, the White House recently announced plans to expand the use of crowdsourcing by the U.S. Patent Office in an effort to improve accuracy and responsiveness while also spurring knowledge dissemination across the economy.
This marrying of crowdsourcing and intellectual property protection seems an appropriate mixing of traditional government and Gov 2.0 and how both must find ways to co-exist. Crowdsourcing’s greatest strength – the near-limitless potential of an online populous – also represents its most significant limitation, namely the lack of formality and structure. Wikipedia is a tremendous resource, but it does not eliminate the need for professional journalism and corporate media.
As new boundaries are sought and forged between formal structures and open communities, government must learn and adapt its role accordingly. One example is open data, rendering previously internalized and guarded sources of information public in the hopes of spurring wider and collective usage. An alternative, complementary approach has been embraced by the British government in its creation of an independent set of ‘What Works’ evidence centres for social policy. The mandate of these novel centres is to focus on complex social problems not by undertaking research – nor by sponsoring it – but instead by gathering all relevant insights and data sources and making them widely available to stakeholders and constituents. Instead of controlled crowdsourcing, the aim is to empower communities with the means to devise new solutions.
In this publication, the federal government’s Canada 2020 initiative has been a topic of much discussion, with varying viewpoints about its potential and legitimacy. In a 2.0 stylized environment with crowdsourcing potential, one litmus test is seemingly quite clear: will Ottawa mandarins seek to determine for themselves if and how best to make use of the ideas inspired by this participative effort, or will there be novel and genuine efforts to enable public servants to collectively devise and own much needed reforms?