Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Crowd Sourcing Government Policy

Last week Jeremy Hunt announced a Conservative plan for a £1 million competition to develop an online application that would allow members of the public to collaborate together to create solutions and solve a social problem.

The response of the mainstream media and the opposition was to ridicule the idea, suggest that competitions to create innovation are silly and that there’s plenty of ways to collaborate and consult online already like facebook and Twitter.

What Jeremy Hunt was actually saying was that a Conservative government would introduce a new Public Reading stage of the bill, which will allow members of the public to consult on green papers, make comments and perhaps eventually even come up with better ways of doing things.

There’s a competition because as great at what they do as Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites and apps are, they aren’t designed to do this. Nothing is available that can work on the scale they’re looking for, and with the features that will be needed, and setting up a competition will drive people to develop what’s needed. All kinds of organisations have used competitions to drive innovation in fact Virgin’s Space Ship Two that will provide the first private space tourism is an evolution of the Ansari X-prize winning Space Ship One from Scaled Composites. The precedent is definitely there.

So the competition idea isn’t as silly as it sounds, but what about the basic idea of asking the public to contribute, to effectively make policy and maybe even amend legislation? At the moment legislation does go to consultation but if you ever read a consultation document they’re dull, non interactive and are generally put to you as we want to do this or this, which do you prefer? The responses they get back and certainly the responses that are given the most airing are those from associations, and groups that are seen to represent the public or special interests, not from individuals.

Allowing any member of the public to have input and shape legislation is a natural progression from what we have now and where we started from. I am currently reading William Hague’s excellent biography of William Pitt. Pitt enacted the gagging laws stopping congregations of 15 people or more, because he believed in the primacy of parliament. If you had an issue then you should go to your MP and make a representation and they would then make a representation in the House. To congregate and complain, inciting rebellion etc was against the primacy of parliament and the system, that was more his issue than anything else.

What Jeremy Hunt suggested is a continued evolution of how parliament makes laws at the moment and I think very much reflects the time we live in, where it is about the individual and their views, and the wisdom of the individual in the many, rather than the pure wisdom of their representatives. The issues of tomorrow won’t be solved by the hierarchical solutions of today.

We can’t limit our decision making in such complex systems as we now operate in to the individual complexity of one minister, or a small groups of individuals, we do have to try to harness the wisdom and expertise of the masses and I therefore believe that this suggestion is a great stepping stone towards that.

For a great example of a very simple experiment in this area check out what's happening with the draft manifesto on health the Web Cameron Direct and Google Moderator. Really CCHQ should have been pushing this as a basic example alongside the original announcement.

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  1. A good thoughtful article - particularly agree with the point that they should point to the use of google moderator so people get the gist. This is a cracking idea from the Tories and should be applauded and supported. The success or failure does lie in the criteria that need to be met to claim the prize - more here on what that could look like: http://wp.me/pHMG9-2y

  2. Great article, see my comments at the bottom, the challenge really is about community not technology. The technology is relatively simple really.