First the internet, then social media and now crowdfunding is disrupting government

Government has proven no more immune to disruption by digital than any other industry.

The internet changed the model for governments in delivering information and dealing with pressure groups. It has been a largely positive disruption, facilitated billions in savings as government moved services online in egovernment initiatives. At the same time it has seen governments able to provide the same, or more, services to citizens without growing staff numbers at the same rate as population growth.

In Australia the Australian Public Service employs roughly the same number of staff as in 1990, despite a 30% increase in our population. While not all attributable to egovernment, I think it is fair to say that considering the range of services and activities of the Australian Government today, compared to 40 years ago, digitalisation has had a substantial impact in respect of job numbers.

Social media has been a more uncomfortable disruption for government, thus far providing for a mixed experience. Governments in Australia have rapidly adopted the use of social media – as I track through the proxy of Twitter accounts (over 920 today compared to none in early 2007) – using social platforms for activities from communication to engagement, customer service, codesign and policy development.

At the same time social media has challenged government by giving millions a more public voice and way to organise groups – from simple petitions for bank notes usable by blind people through to connecting people and facilitating the organisation of mass rallies during the Arab Spring.

Governments have found it more difficult to ignore self-organising groups than single isolated individuals, and have begun to face continual critiquing of every decision as soon as it is announced – an unprecedented environment of scrutiny and noise.

However the clamour of critics on social networks can be ignored – we’ve already seen several elected politicians cancel social media accounts and put much greater constraints around how their staff use these networks.

The next disruption, crowdfunding, is already showing some signs of having a material impact beyond that of raised voices and organised protests.

Historically when governments stopped funding activities or services, or changed what they delivered – as a result of electoral and policy changes – the media would comment, the public would talk about it for a few weeks, maybe even protest, and then generally governments could get on with delivering their new mix without significant disruption.

Governments were in control – they chose where their budget was spent and things that were cut remained cut.

Of course some form of charity or other provider might choose to find alternative funding to continue delivering a service on a small scale, however this could be safely ignored, or even declared a win by government as it was clear that government didn’t need to fund that service anyway.

This line was actually used very recently by the current Australian government after it defunded the Climate Change Commission (a government-funded body for providing expert advice on climate change to the public) and the commissioners went out to find alternative funding.

However something was different on this occasion.

Rather than having a few organisations or wealthy and concerned individuals provide funds to keep the Climate Change Commission alive under a new name, the Climate Council, the Commissioners used a crowdfunding route.

The first donation to keep the Climate Council live was $15. Over the first 12 hours it raised $160,000 – literally overnight.

At the end of the first week the Climate Council had raised one million dollars, and the donations continued to arrive.

For awhile it was unclear whether this was a once-off event. The Climate Commission dealt with an emotive topic – climate change – and was led by prominent and well-respected Australian, Professor Tim Flannery. It was an existing body with an existing purpose, so already had structure and goals.

This was a useful combination for crowdfunding, providing a leg-up for marshalling the right crowd to provide the donations required to continue operations.

However we’re now seeing crowd funding used to underpin the completion of another defunded Australian Government project, the Blueprint for an Ageing Australia.

While it is unclear whether this project will meet its goal, it is beginning to suggest that crowdfunding may become a regular tactic used to counter government decisions.

Effectively communities could use crowdfunding, in certain casesm as an alternative to government funding. The approach allows them to self-organise and finance public initiatives that they feel are important but governments, for funding or ideological reasons, do not.

The impact of this crowdfunding may be benign – communities simply getting the services they wish, regardless of the government’s priorities – or may be considered highly political.

If a government defunds something and then supporters find the funds in the crowd to keep it alive, what does that say about the community’s view of the government’s priorities and decisions? Will governments be forced to back down or change their approach? Will it affect elections?

This is still very early days, however it is worth governments beginning to build their awareness of crowdfunding and how it is beginning to be used – as well as how it can be used for the benefit of government, such as by seeking some public crowdfunding for an initiative before agreeing to put public money into the mix.

At the end of the day an individual putting down their personal cash to back a crowdfunding project is a significantly greater commitment of belief and value than a signature on a petition, a social media backlash or even a march on the street. Governments need to appreciate and understand this and treat it accordingly.

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