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Applying Crowdsourcing/Collaborative Models in a Government Environment

This is the third of three in a mini-series of blog entries. In the first blog entry, I described Gov 2.0 as a world of “permeable boundaries”, characterized by crowdsourcing and collaboration, and described the challenges that created for leadership. In the second blog entry I looked at some model organizations that are already working (and very effectively) in that sort of environment and what they might have to teach us. In this final instalment, I’ll try and apply those lessons to government. This was the hardest one to write, as I’ve really just started thinking about it. I’m sure that these models provide lessons we can learn and apply to government to enable our leaders to lead effectively, despite the blurred boundaries and diffused responsibility. I’m far less sure of exactly what those lessons are. These are my first thoughts. I welcome your edits, corrections, additions, etc.

(As a side and obligatory note: these opinions are my own and not those of my employer. Although I wouldn’t be offended if my employer starts to think along these lines.)

Internal collaboration
For internal collaboration, I find it easiest to draw a parallel by thinking of the staff of the department/branch/unit that is accountable for the finished product being collaborated on as being the equivalent of the “paid staff” in the model organizations and the participating staff from other departments/branches/units as the equivalent of the “volunteers”.

There are two main challenges to internal collaboration: getting people from outside the department/branch/unit to devote their time to the collaborative project and getting management to be comfortable in sharing their intellectual property (the “draft” material “not ready for publication”). For both of these challenges we might be able to find some solutions from our model organizations.

For the first, part of the answer comes from a clear vision and direction statement from the leadership of the collaboration project. As the models have shown, if the vision is one that the volunteers can buy into, they are more likely to participate. The key would be to describe the goals of the project in broader terms than the departmental goals, using rather the goals of the government as a whole. These are goals shared across the organization. Rewards used by the model organizations can also be adopted to encourage participation (reputation, enhanced access, etc.).

For the latter, there are also several sides to the solution. One major concern with sharing materials within the organization that are “not ready for publication” is that they will be seen as representing the thoughts and opinions of the department/branch/unit when that isn’t clear yet. Our model organizations have a number of approaches to addressing this particular concern. One is by clearly identifying material as to just how far along it is and distinguishing DRAFT from APPROVED. We see this with Mozilla in the many release versions, which are clearly marked as alpha, beta and full release and where the public releases are clearly identified as such. They are comfortable having people using their beta releases because they are clearly marked as such.

Another tactic for addressing this concern is clear attribution of authorship. If the work-in-progress is clearly attributed to the particular authors who work on it (or the changes attributed to changers) then the leaders won’t be as worried about content being attributed to them that they haven’t vetted. The various modules of Firefox all have clear individuals who are accountable for them. Another concern with sharing the material is about trust in the work that the volunteers will be doing. On the one hand, if the leaders are confident that the “volunteers” share their goals, they will likely be more trusting with their material. On the other hand, a clear review process of volunteer submitted material can also allay these concerns. The Mozilla Project has a strong review process to ensure the quality of volunteer contributions. While approvals are not necessary to take the code and creatively modify it, they are required before the resulting code is integrated into the Firefox product and associated with the Mozilla brand.

External engagement and crowdsourcing

For external engagement and crowdsourcing, government staff are the “paid staff” and citizenry and partner organizations (community groups, NGOs, businesses) are the “volunteers”. Leadership needs to be comfortable with “co-creation” – including the community in the creative process. One technique that can be learned from model organizations is a focused call for participation. While people frequently request that government simply open all data saying “make of it what you will” , government leaders may not be comfortable with this. Following our model organizations, government leaders can provide more direction and a vision. They can provide a call to action. It is far better to make the data available saying “Use this to help us promote our province (or state or country)!”, “Use this to help encourage investment and industry!”, “Use this to help us improve our service delivery and to design innovative new services!” or “Use this to help us increase citizen engagement and improve our democracy!” This can be done through a competition or it can be simply how the material is marketed.

If the vision or goals are made clear and the initial responses are in line, it will be much easier for leadership to be confident that the community shares their vision and goals and is “on side” (fear of a “gotcha” response is a primary impediment to risk-taking). This technique was followed by the Obama campaign. It was very clear on what the vision was. All of its material was tied to the three themes: Hope. Change. Action. The message was so clear and consistent that it was effectively picked up and communicated by the vast community of volunteers in the development of their home-grown marketing efforts, graphics, posters, videos, etc.

This concept of providing the overall direction/vision and letting people make it happen in any way that works sounds a lot like “leadership” (as opposed to “management”) as described in the leadership literature for a long time now. Our leaders (the politicians and senior executives) may be ready for this but most government organizations are not. They tend to be bureaucracies and very process-oriented. They are control-driven, to ensure consistency and accountability. This can be seen internally and in relationships with partners, which is usually accompanied by Service Level Agreements or Memoranda of Understanding.

We need to trade some consistency for innovation; some accountability for opportunity. We need to keep some consistency (quality) and definitely accountability with the paid staff while opening up to the loss of consistency and accountability in the volunteers. We need to embrace that which moves the vision forward; while letting that which doesn’t die on the vine.

These aren’t the be all and end all of my thoughts on the matter. This is the result of a week or two’s musing in off moments. I’m following my own advice and sharing the draft, “not ready for distribution”, half-baked ideas and looking for contributions and creative re-mixing from the community. What do you think?

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Adriel Hampton

I really appreciate your series, David. Have you taken a look at MixedInk.com and how people use it? I participated in drafting a group letter to Congress on the bailout. It’s still in demo mode, but it really is a revolutionary wiki tool.

David Tallan

I haven’t used it. It looks interesting, but I’m a bit taken aback when they say in their marketing video that wikis don’t scale. If Wikipedia isn’t an example of effective scaling, I don’t know what is!

Still, it’s an interesting combination of wiki and rating. I think the boundaries between the different social media tools are going to become much more permeable. 🙂