Rory Cellan-Jones

The politics of crowdsourcing

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 1 Dec 09, 13:50 GMT

The Conservatives have obtained another leaked document, a government report on public sector IT.

Laptop computerThis leak isn't likely to generate lurid headlines, as the report on transforming government by using "interactive (web 2.0) tools and processes, cloud computing technology and service-oriented architecture (SOA)" isn't exactly dynamite.

Still, the Conservatives have come up with quite a clever idea - they've put the document online and are inviting the public to comment on every part of it as they frame the party's response.

They've built a website called Make IT Better, and say their aim is " to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed".

They're calling this "crowdsourcing" policy - but how far is it likely to go and will it prove a major feature of political engagement from now on?

The Conservatives say they've already used this idea back in 2007 to enlist the public's help in shaping their manifesto, with a site called Stand Up, Speak Up.

Their online communities editor Craig Elder told me that experiment had worked well, with members of the public contributing all kinds of ideas which would eventually play a part in next year's manifesto.

But the government says it's already used the same crowdsourcing techniques. The Cabinet Office, having dismissed the leak as an early draft of a document that would be published before Christmas, insisted that it had already done plenty to get the public involved in policymaking.

A spokesman pointed to examples such as the Power of Information Taskforce report, which was put online for comments for three weeks before publication, and to The Show Us A Better Way competition, where people were asked to submit ideas for online services.

Politicians in opposition and in government are latching onto the idea of using the web to engage with the wider public.

But, as anybody running any blog will know, there are plenty of dangers inherent in an online conversation. What happens when, instead of helpful contributions from enlightened readers, you are bombarded with vituperative comments from single-issue fanatics?

Having said you'll listen, should you decide policy by the weight of comments you receive? And if you decide that you know better than Dave from Dagenham or Deidre from Dundee what's in the interest of the country, won't they end up feeling worse about you than if you'd never consulted them in the first place?

"You've got to take the risk," says Craig Elder, "you'll get a lot of good stuff when you engage." But he admits that, when it comes to framing policies, "at the end of the day you have to make a decision about what's sensible and what's not".

Next year's general election will see the parties determined to prove that they can use everything from YouTube, to blogs to Twitter to get their message to the public - and, in theory at least, to listen to what voters are saying.

Britain's first truly digital election may mark a profound change in the relationship between politicians and the public. Then again, we may end up finding out that the public would rather just be left alone.


  • Comment number 1.

    This is fine for smaller issues, and is an easy and helpful way of keeping abreast of government policy proposals. However, it seems to me that government are more interested in giving the impression that they are 'down with the kids' than to properly listen to genuine public opinion by having referenda on key issues. Blogs and online debates should not constitute 'democracy'.

  • Comment number 2.

    Depends purely on how far they take it. This can be good to get a general "mood" that the countrys in about any plans and adjust them accordingly so that the country is happier about it all, but as Nick said what happens if the nutjobs get on the board. All a question of moderation, and we know how well that works on the political blogs here, so on a actual political site? Time will tell...

  • Comment number 3.

    Perhaps it’s me, but they don’t seem to be actually allowing comments or registering to post comments etc. Some have been put up if you click the RSSComments (in tiny letters) at the bottom, but again there’s no way of actually adding one.

    Were those that add comments carefully selected and added by 'MakeITBetter' admin?

  • Comment number 4.

    Hmm, seems like they've seen and are afraid that people might actually like a say in how their country is run and P2010 may start gaining ground on them if they don't do something similar themselves.

    As others have said though, they're showing they can walk the walk, but can they talk the talk (or even better, DELIVER ON THEIR ELECTION PROMISES)?

  • Comment number 5.

    What happens when, [...] you are bombarded with vituperative comments from single-issue fanatics?

    Speaking of which, how's that proper Ubuntu write-up coming?


  • Comment number 6.

    To comment #6 ... That's my line!!

  • Comment number 7.

    Weird how this is reported as a leak, yet the "Climategate" data is reported as a hack, even though there's no evidence either way. Funny old World. Anyway, that aside, am I alone in thinking any Government "web 2.0" project will just end up involving the word "citizen" too many times and end up looking like Myspace? Personally, I'd love to see all levels of Government embrace open source and fully transparent data, but I'm not holding my breath.

  • Comment number 8.

    Ah yes, 'online, and collaborative'... These have been the watchwords of just about anyone launching a 'Web-initiative' about anything, in the last ten years, haven't they?

    The problem is that 'Online and collaborative' is all to often married with 'unaccountable and (this is the important bit) annonymous'.

    Whereas in the construction of something like an operating system or a Web browser - when the identity of those contributing, is not only known, but the value of their contributions is immediately and unambiguously apparent - attempts to apply the same approach to more subjective areas of endevour, such as encyclopedias, or (in this case) future public policy, stand on weaker ground. 'Online and collaborative' can quickly morph into 'online and consensual' - or even something more sinister, if the ultimate outcome is decided by whoever is the most active and determined editor of the content.

    Worse still, public policy is not even a subject of consensus, but rather of open and often hostile contention, so I realy don't see what value may be got from this notion. At best, it might dissolve into something that resembles the comments section of Youtube, and at worst... well others have already said, what it could be, at worst.


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