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Why Governments Have Failed at Crowdsourcing

Two Words: User Acquisition

Local, state and national Governments have yet to fully take advantage of the many platforms available for crowd sourcing policy primarily because they have failed to court a significant enough user base to generate a genuine and sustained online community. Without a diverse enough, self-regulating community of users who are continually participating in the creation and editing of content, many sites, specifically those who focus on a single jurisdiction or municipality, have simply become one stop suggestion boxes. This is helpful and to some extent valuable, but primitive in its overall effect on the governing process.

In order to generate the most optimal and equitable policy outcomes through the use of crowd sourcing, (which I do believe is indeed possible), then both the governments using the platforms and the firms who developed the platforms, must make a significant effort to streamline their user acquisition processes. They must take a more hands on approach, including the direct solicitation of users, and identify micro-communities who will serve to develop the most optimal online norms (avoid flamers and spammers who create an artificial barrier to entry for most).

As it stands now, the most common type of platform that exists for the creation of public policy online, by local governments, is more or less based upon existing consumer feedback software. Typically their business model assumes the following 1) if we build it they will come, 2) local governments bear the majority of the user acquisition burden because they are the ones who stand to benefit, i.e. we just license software, we are not in the community outreach game, and 3) because of the nature of public agencies/municipalities, a centralized platform (one that overlap jurisdictions) cannot exist because it’s hard to verify individual users and, because public agencies want to maintain all of the data generated exclusively for themselves.

Now as most people working in social media have come to find out, the first assumption, “if we build they will come”, is just flat out wrong. I really do not need to elaborate upon this because the truth has become so self evident, but if you fail to actively solicit a user base then you leave yourself vulnerable to the following unwanted scenarios… 1) No one hears about or uses the platform, and those who do reinforce, rather than challenge one another’s ideas; and 2) Your platform gets hijacked by spammers and flamers to the extent that no genuine participant wants to get involved for fear of “crap” overload.

Note: Points and badges are not enough to keep a user base engaged, they need a rich and diverse enough online experience to develop an alternative identity. The most successful online communities and games are the ones that allow for niche participation to occur and provide enough content/actions to keep them interested. An adviser of ours once called it a “heartbeat”, which basically meant that any successful online community needs to have a continual outlet, or iterative means of participation. These cycles are what keep the user continually engaged because they literally have to keep coming back in order to preserve what they have already started to create. In other words, it is not enough to just make a suggestion, vote and leave; users need to be continually stimulated!! Perhaps suggest an article for them to read, ask them questions in the form of a relevant survey, create a badge that rewards the citation of an article or the uploading of media, provide more outlets for being social other than just sharing content, etc. Remember we want to have people thinking critically about policy, not just voting (that’s a problem we already have, let’s not replicate it online).

The next assumption, which reads like “we make software, its the customer’s job to create a user base” is just a cop out. Part of what makes our platform so unique, (and has allowed us to win contracts over more formally established firms), is that we actually help in the aggregation of users. We are not only an online decision making platform that drafts policy, but we also offer a community outreach service that directly solicits the input of community members through the use of Ipads. In fact, our ipad based outreach has become such a successful part of what we do, that it alone has brought in independent contracts. Thus we are literally getting paid to do our own user acquisition and all of our customers love it. Our ipad interviews serve to 1) help inform and educate potential users, which ultimately creates a more informed and active user base, 2) generate valuable data which our clients can then use to refine their message and 3) create a sense of unparalleled trust between our users and our brand because we are able to facilitate a person-to-person interaction in which potential users can ask questions and get to know a real person (not some phantom phone call). Furthermore, local governments are overwhelmed and have always been hard pressed for community engagement. What makes you think that just because they have some new software that people are suddenly going to take an interest in what they do? Help them by serving a neutral third party! Get the press releases they couldn’t, put those social media interns to work and hit the streets with your message, (community events and meetings help too).

The final assumption is still a genuinely hard problem to overcome because most local governments work within a political atmosphere and thus don’t want to be associated with anything more than they have to. They are also hesitant to give out the data generated through the use of such platforms for fear that it may be used against them. This is an understandable and legitimate fear. The last thing a public agency wants to deal with is excess flak arising from citizen’s privacy concerns. However, they would also be equally disappointed if some outsiders were able to distort their results through a lax verification process. So until someone solves this problem through the creation of some new software (more likely) or the passing of some new and innovative legislation (less likely), then it is up to the firms and their clients to create their own localized means of verification. This is difficult and hard to scale, but given the market as it stands right now, necessary.

So that’s my rant for today, take it as you will.

Robert Singleton


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Ooh…love this post. I’m 100% with you – the hardest part is actually building users and audience…ask any consumer website or event.

Some of the best examples are the ones that have built an audience and do heavy promotion – like how TSA heavily promotes their blog at airports and leverages the traffic they get coming to their site every day.

Deb Green

You’re absolutely right. Building a user base, and a repeat user base, is the foundation for sustainable crowdsourcing. Ending at the product or platform really dooms failure for the program. Creating and sustaining interest in a product, the community, or a timely topic is what keeps that wheel turning. Ignore it, and it’ll grind to a halt.

Anna Doroshaw

I am more interested in where crowdsourcing has been used successfully and why–how did folks make it work, not in focusinig on failure. I am more likely to get ideas and find inspiration from success than from failure. Can some of our colleagues share their stories about how they overcame the odds and succeeded despite all the challenges? If we change our questions, we change the ultimate outcomes.

Catherine Bickram

Goverment has the greatest success story of crowdsourcing of all time…it even saves lives! Without any rewards other than a sense of well being for participants. Think 911 service. Certainly there is a huge support network of highly trained people and tested procedures, but it would all be moot without a phone call from a random passerby. Surely if crowdsourcing can save lives, it can be used to create public policy 😉

Daniel Daughtry-Weiss

Robert, any examples from your work?

I believe research has shown that the best promotion comes through word of mouth (via any form of communication). Beyond just getting the word out that something exists, engaging users is about providing value to the customer–including the abiliy to help other people. Start with understanding value, knowing that many people want to help and to contribute to society, and then make it easy.

Secondly, there are risks for a government manager beyond uncontrolled use of data. Government managers are not venture capitalists. There has to be a high potential benefit to risk/cost ratio. Failure translates into “waste” when the IG gets involved.

Scott Collins

Excellent post Robert! This is a difficult issue for all levels of government, but worthy of the investment of time and energy. We’ve dabbled in crowdsourcing for budget ideas here in Santa Cruz, and hope to expand that approach to other issues like climate action plan implementation.

Alan Huynh

The problem with government and crowdsourcing isn’t the lack of community or user acquisition but instead the lack of Cities with clear goals that require the utilization of social technology.

Although, I wholly agree with Robert that engagement is pitiful in many government agencies, government is the best industry to offer an input/feedback loop of physical engagement through technology, social media, and other platforms.

If a City Council can adopt a medium and long term goal and require social technology to play a critical role, rather than just an afterthought, and direct City staff to actively use social technology in daily tasks, then residents will be engaged as they can see the value of their input and how it impacted the overall goal. Until goals are set, user acquisition just creates more fragmentation in an already highly political arena.

For more thoughts on this checkout my blog;


Scott Collins

Alan is spot-on that setting specific goals and engaging in social media is necessary to broaden participation. However, I believe we (as in most cities) have been unable to demonstrate the value of participation to the broader community…as a result, it’s generally the usual suspects who participate.