A while ago, I listened to a debate on Radio 4 about crowd-sourcing which turned out to be considerably less interesting than I had hoped. But I’ve been trying to make some conclusions for ages, because it’s a central part of what the Big Society, decentralisation, greater citizen empowerment and re-engaging with voters is all about.
Then yesterday I read an illuminating piece from Dan Hodges in the New Statesman, discussing the Labour Party’s current policy reviews (which, by the way, sound incredibly unfocused and designed to delay having anything to say rather than any serious attempt to identify where Labour went wrong and what they should do to put it right, but that’s for another day).
Some of his criticisms chime with mine. The most important thing when you’re undertaking a policy review is, I think, that you still hold fast to your values and you make sure that you knit your policies around them to suit the times. Certainly that is what the Conservative policy review process did in 2006-8; and usefully as well, the point of them was to actively seek ideas from non-traditional sources.
So to me, it’s completely bizarre that one of the main complaints in the article is that only a small proportion of the responses have come from Labour party members. Now I could understand that if all the non-members send in is criticism of Labour’s record in government (and there’s plenty to criticise) but surely one of the fundamental problems of Labour in government was that they were convinced that they knew best and we knew nothing?
Given that that appears not to have changed, Labour’s policy review doesn’t look terribly likely to succeed…
More broadly though, is my presumption in favour of crowd-sourcing really a good one?
You can read page after page of complaints from people who’ve tried to get involved with, for example, the Budget crowd-sourcing, or with reviews of regulation, or with Big Society projects, or even the Great Repeal bill – and so many of them say that no-one centrally bothered to engage with them, that their ideas were ignored, or – perhaps worst of all – they were told that what they were making suggestions around was not up for discussion.
And then if I talk to some people who are involved in actually inviting opinions and responses, they too have their complaints – it’s always the same (few) people who reply, saying the same thing, with their corporate-speak and their lobbying campaigns; and if someone with a real passion for something but no vested interests does come along, too often they refuse to see that their issue is affected by and has effects on other areas.
So there are problems on both sides with crowd-sourcing. But it can and does work – though, as I argued in my czars piece – the participants on both sides need some ground rules.
I would suggest that both sides need to be clear on what is being asked for – is it blue sky craziness (which, as Tim Harford argues persuasively, sometimes can be what’s needed) or is it good, solid best practice? Is the Party prepared to fundamentally re-examine its policies, or is it just window-dressing? Are the fundamentals right in the first place (for example, when the Conservatives did the policy review, it was after 3 big defeats and a – slow but eventual – realisation that we had to operate in the modern world. I’m not sure Labour has got to the crux of their problem yet).
Perhaps the key to crowd-sourcing though is asking the right people – or at the very least, identifying those people who have something useful to say. How you do that is open to debate, and it very much depends on what you want to know. People who are happy with services generally tend not to say much about them; it’s the unhappy ones who make a lot of noise, which of course is likely to give you an unbalanced view.
Part of how to identify the right people is something that the Big Society is all about – it’s about engaging many many more people in what goes on around them. Crowd-sourcing probably isn’t really a valid mainstream way to address big problems in society as yet. But it could be. Just look at how people ask for recommendations on Twitter, or at some of the examples in this article about specialised problem-solving. And then think about the power of having all the energy, brainpower and experience of a whole load of people brought to bear on the little things that make our lives worthwhile…