For too long government-citizen interactions have been disconnected. Every once in a while, in a democratic system, people would go to the polls and express their preferences by electing representatives and delegating in these individuals a lot of power until the next election.
In the past, if citizens wanted to express frustration or discontent with, for example, government public services, they would probably end up finding a one-way hotline number to call and yell at a disempowered City Hall employee, with limited power and ability to act on the citizen’s request. Such scenario has changed dramatically with increased internet accessibility and explosive mobile device penetration. Through smartphones, citizens are finding more proactive and innovative ways of interacting with governments. And some city government officials are reacting to these new forms of urban governance: such is the case of Boston, for example.
Since 2009, the Boston’s Mayor Office has been undergoing a disruptive transformation trying to put citizen engagement at the center of the administration’s efforts. At that time, the launch of the (later award-winning) mobile app Citizen Connect was unprecedented. The app, now called BOS:311, allows citizens to report infrastructure and service problems such as potholes, streetlight failures, or graffiti via their cellphones.
The process is very simple: any Bostonian can upload a picture of an issue they want to report with their phone, that picture is automatically geolocated, and sets a red pin in a map for citizens to be able to track their reports. At the same time, that information is sent directly as a workorder to the road crews in the field, cutting off middle-men and paperwork. Once the issue is resolved, the field worker marks the pin green, to communicate that the work has been done, and (in the latter versions of the app) can even send a picture of the addressed problem (i.e. a filled pothole) to the citizen that reported it in the first place.
The outcomes for Boston citizens were very positive, with great effects on civic engagement: suddenly “complainers” were turning into proactive app users who felt empowered and being part of the solution in keeping the city livable and safe. In fact, enabling this active civic-engagement model also represented a win solution for the government, as the data collected by the 311 reports and customer surveys was great to provide insights on how to best target public resources. The process of getting a better understanding of the community conditions through citizens’ data is called data-crowdsourcing.
But data-crowdsourcing is only one example on how crowdsourcing can serve governments. There are, according to Citizenlabs1, at least four other ways on how today networks can enable government institutions to tap into the creativity and insights of the wider society:
- Crowdsourcing of opinions: Through polling, sentiment analysis and opinion mining can help identify which topics people care about, and through language processing and machine learning techniques, government can project and analyze public opinion in sophisticated ways. Social media platforms, like twitter, have been a rich source of data for crowdsourcing opinions.
- Crowdsourcing of ideas: Governments crowdsource ideas with the objective to find creative solutions to specific problems. Through digital platforms, citizens can “brainstorm” collectively, and provide a diverse funnel of innovative ideas that are not binding.
- Crowdsourcing of funds (or better known as civic crowdfunding): Generally refer to small financial contributions by a large number of donors to support a specific idea or project, and usually besides raising the money has a strong effect in engaging the community.
- Crowdsourcing of tasks: Microtasking involves having lots of citizens contribute a small part of the solution for a greater initiative.
Spoiler alert, if you care more about this topic I highly recommend to check out HBS Professor Mitch Weiss’ Public Entrepreneurship course!
Government-citizen relations can be transformed through crowdsourcing, enabling new avenues for collaboration and direct interactions between the public and their representatives. If used properly, it can result in great value creation: by enhancing democracy and keeping the governments agendas closer to people’s needs and interests, and value capturing: invigorating civic engagement by having citizens participating in the solution creation process. Still, as these practices tend to evolve governments will need to remain mindful of when to utilize each of these resources, not to create unnecessary bureaucracy. Even more, they will also need to be careful in understanding that these processes are not subject to discrimination or creating unwanted biases.
Despite the risks, there are ample opportunities in technology intermediating civic relationships, providing governments with innovative tools and data to better serve their populations.