Earlier this week the UK Conservative party promised to offer a £1m cash prize to a person or team that creates an online platform that can be used to solve “common problems”.
The prize – which the party says will be the largest offered by a British government in modern times – will be awarded for a platform in which citizens can post ideas in relation to government policy. The exact specifics of the platform have not been outlined, but it’s envisioned as a mesh between Fixmystreet, Facebook, Spigit, IdeaScale and MixedInk.
The platform will need to be able to sift through millions of online comments and highlight the most sensible suggestions from those with experience of the area in question. Most current idea generation platforms use digg-like voting mechanisms as a means of highlighting the most popular suggestions. The £1million prize is on offer to anyone who can devise a more sophisticated way of sifting through suggestions and weighting relevant ideas in an appropriate manner.
Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt explained the plan on Wednesday’s BBC radio’s Today programme.
Conservatives believe that the collective wisdom of the British people is much greater than that of a bunch of politicians or so-called experts. And new technology now allows us to harness that wisdom like never before. So at this time of year, when families and friends are getting together, we’re announcing a new idea to help the British people get together to help solve the problems that matter to them.
There are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by government – this prize is a good and cost-effective way of getting one.
James Harkin, author of Cyburbia, was also interviewed and provided a useful critique of the crowdsourcing concept. He notes how many organisations have tried to use the wisdom of the crowds, not as a means of harnessing collective intelligence, but rather as a means of cosying up to the public:
They’re flattering the intelligence of people by telling them we’re listening to your opinions, we want you to be involved…but there is an incredible powerlessness for ordinary members of the public…having no idea where those ideas will go.
He also highlighted the difficulties in aggregating suggestions, which could lead to bureaucrats picking and choosing which ones get implemented. Voting mechanisms e.g. such as those involved in the recent SAVE Award could reduce this, but it also creates the opportunity for advocacy groups to game the system.
Thumbs Up or Down works but fails to explain why: Crowds do not drive and bring innovation to successful fruition in the form of a marketable product. Nor are they the best source for assessing quality – the one that shouts the loudest is heard the most.
Nevertheless, crowds can tell you if they like or dislike something.
Mr. Hunt agrees with the concerns around how to weight particular opinions, e.g. from experts in a field, so these are not downed out by mass volumes of bland or populist suggestions. The required platform will need to sift, aggregate and weight ideas appropriately e.g. based on sophisticated algorithms or other means.
He goes on to explain that often the issue with ideas in government is not in their vision or objectives, but in their execution. So rather than using the platform to gather ideas, the execution of these suggestions will also need to be solicited. The platform should also act as a lifecycle management application for the implementation of ideas e.g. potentially up to drafting Requests For Proposal.
The comments to the competition on the Guardian, Daily Mail and Register highlight some cynicism towards the competition. Commercial and Open source platforms already exist for idea formulation and discussion, and therefore it’s questioned whether such new platforms are really required. Also, the sum of money involved also seems excessive.
For the Government, Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell said the Conservatives were “opting for a PR gimmick over policy substance” and predicted the idea would be “quietly dropped”.
For the Liberal Democrats, Work and Pensions spokesperson Jenny Willott MP said:
This prize is clearly a publicity stunt and a total waste of taxpayers’ money. There are already a multitude of ways to communicate with large numbers of people online, from Facebook to discussion groups.
Maybe the Tories are so out of touch they don’t know what’s out there, but they shouldn’t waste £1m of public money reinventing the wheel.
Matt Leifer’s comment, however, sums up my view on the initiative:
The reality of the situation is that you could easily put together a site of this type of crowdsourcing/social networking site using existing open source web-tools, e.g. Drupal, Elgg, etc. If you paid a developer to work on it for a month or two and made use of the open source community then you could have a working site for a fraction of a million. Also, the idea of a “competition” for this sort of thing is just silly political grandstanding. This would be a routine job for most web developers, i.e. it is not comparable to the Netflix prize for which radically innovative ideas were needed.
Others, however, have been more supportive of the initiative acknowledging that other areas of government are already running competitions for solutions to specific problems. Matthew Taylor outlines these:
The Labour Government in the UK has also been keen to use prize competitions, with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts offering a £1,000,000 prize for community-led responses to climate change, and the MoD’s “Grand Challenge” competition, focused on the development of battlefield technologies.
He goes on to say that the criticism seems to be leveled at the means to execute the objective, rather than the proposal itself (i.e. that of asking the public to contribute towards engaging and critiquing government policy):
If the use of prize competitions to encourage innovation has a long and successful history..it is difficult to give any credance to any criticism leveled at Hunt for his method… this may well be why none of the politicians have bothered to properly discriminate between the objective Hunt sets out, and the method he proposes.
The innovation of crowds
The competition proposed is unique in that it’s not seeking ideas, but rather a working platform. Crowdsourcing as a means of innovating (as this competition will require) has been criticized recently. Dan Woods notes:
In the popular press, and in the minds of millions of people, the word crowdsourcing has created an illusion that there is a crowd that solves problems better than individuals…
The notion of crowds creating solutions appeals to our desire to believe that working together we can do anything, but in terms of innovation it is just ridiculous.There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field… From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.
He goes on to say that misplaced faith in the crowd is a blow to the image of the heroic inventor and the need to nurture and fund these inventors. A false idea of the crowd as an innovating entity can reduce the motivation for this investment, ‘with the supposition that companies can tap the minds of inventors on the cheap’.
Hutch Carpenter does, however, note a common misconception in relation to communities and the innovation process:
This may be one of my favorite misconceptions about the role of communities in innovation. That crowdsourcing is some sort of mind meld where innovations spring from a collective brain wave.
He acknowledges the problems and opportunities of communities working in the innovation process, but explains role of crowdsourcing and how it can help in the process. It’s potential lies in three areas:
- Crowdsourcing involves collecting ideas in aggregate
- Community feedback brings a diversity of viewpoints to the ideas
- Crowdsourcing does mean 100% of the world’s population – it attracts only those interested in a particular domain
In a similar vein Karim R. Lakhani, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, refers to crowdsourcing as ‘broadcast search’ and cautions to ‘pretend that 10,000 average Joes invent better products than Steve Jobs.’ As such, it’s unlikely that such a platform will be created by an individual or team without any guarantee of success. Instead, a collaborative staged process may need to be incorporated into the competition, with a requirement that the best ideas from different solutions are potentially incorporated into the end platform.
If the competition was to be structured in a similar multi-stage procurement model as that of the NetFlix prize it maybe more successful. However, it’s likely that progress prizes would need to be awarded over many years to the best-performing teams, until one team met the specified performance level e.g. similar to Netflix’s 10 percent accuracy improvement.
Given the development required for such a platform it’s likely it’ll involve individuals working with private companies or advocacy groups to produce such a platform. Nevertheless, the idea of procuring in such a way could lead to significant cost savings in comparison to the tradition means of awarding IT projects to large consultancies. Perhaps, this could be the legacy of any competition i.e. moving towards a more multi-stage open procurement model.