April 11, 2012 By Charles Taylor
Counties have always sought feedback from their citizens through surveys, focus groups and public hearings.
So what’s the big deal about “crowdsourcing” — aside from its having a certain techie-buzzword coolness factor?
Also known as citizen sourcing in some government circles, crowdsourcing is more commonly used by businesses. As with Wikipedia, it’s the process of bringing hundreds or thousands of minds together, online, to collaborate, solve problems or vet ideas. Call it outsourcing tasks to a network of people — the crowd. Participants also can provide their input in-person for smaller groups.
Increasingly, counties are using crowdsourcing through their websites to solve problems, solicit ideas and improve upon county-originated proposals and programs. Oakland County, Mich.; Howard County, Md.; and Stafford County, Va., are just of few of the local governments that are embracing the crowd.
“Really, what crowdsourcing is about is tapping into all of the good ideas that local governments know their citizenry has,” said Ira Levy, Howard County’s chief information officer (CIO), “and it’s doing so in a way that citizens feel compelled to participate because it’s easily accessible.”
As any County Board member knows, there can be the same small cadre of vocal citizens who show up meeting after meeting to express their views. “You don’t get a wide-ranging group of folks who have different knowledge sets,” said Phil Bertolini, Oakland County’s CIO and deputy county executive. “If you get the same three people that show up at your public comment all the time, then all you get is their opinion.” Crowdsourcing opens the process to those who are unable to attend meetings.
In Stafford County, about 40 percent of residents commute outside the county for work — many making the daily 45-mile slog to Washington, D.C. — so officials there hope a citizen-sourcing module called Community Voice will provide new opportunities for civic engagement.
“With modern technology, they can participate in a forum on their cellphone, tablet, laptop, etc.,” county spokeswoman Cathy Vollbrecht said in an email. “The ability to have an active voice in their local government will be at their fingertips, 24/7.”
Oakland County conducted a pilot project called IdeaScale in February 2011 in parks and recreation, economic development, facilities and IT. It resulted in 72 ideas being posted garnering 267 comments from 164 registered users and 550 votes cast, Bertolini said. The county’s Ideas Project website currently is seeking suggestions on redesigning the county website.
IdeaScale was customized for the county by employees and students from Michigan State University; it cost the county about $35,000 to implement, including the students’ unpaid time valued at $18,500. In addition, Bertolini said his staff spent about 280 hours on the effort, accounting for the balance of the county’s investment. He added that as a government client, there is no licensing fee.
Howard County’s first foray into crowdsourcing is using the same technology between now and May 31 to gather public input to help its Department of Technology and Communication Services develop a new strategic plan, Levy said.
“We looked at how Wikipedia works, and we feel that the fact that it has accurate information defies all logic,” he added, “so we kind of felt, ‘Why can’t we defy logic, too?’ Or at least we’ll figure out if we can.”
Howard’s IdeaScale Web module will open the process not only to residents, but also to compa¬nies, whether manufacturers or consultants, “so that we end up with the best possible evolutionary type plan,” Levy said. The county’s “Ideas” Web page will permit par¬ticipants and commenters to attach materials related to their comments such as white papers and supporting documents. Registration is required so the county can follow up on the ideas.
Vollbrecht said her county might use Community Voice to solicit ideas for celebrating the county’s upcom-ing 350th anniversary in 2014. There is no extra cost for Community Voice as a part of a package deal with CivicPlus, the website developer that created the citizen-sourcing module.
Taking a page from social media, some local governments are using “gamification” in their crowdsourcing applications — making participants’ online experience more game-like by awarding badges and ribbons as recognition for those who comment most, for example.
According to “How Gamification Drives Crowdsourcing,” an editorial at crowdsourcing.org, “The science behind Gamification as it’s being applied to Crowdsourcing is to make the performance of an otherwise mundane online task, something fun to do. By presenting a simple task in a playful manner you motivate the user through the intro¬duction of a competitive dynamic.”
Also as with social media, participants can weigh in on other commenters’ posts, similar to Facebook and various online news sites — but hopefully with less of the vitriol that occasionally can be found on the latter.
Bertolini said that in order for crowdsourcing to be successful, the pro¬cess must be monitored to provide feedback, when appropriate, to those making suggestions. Jesse Manning of Civic Plus said, “There does have to be a commitment on the side of the government to review those submissions, and if something generates a lot of interest and a lot of support, to actually see that through to implementation if it’s a valid idea.”
IT officials from all three coun¬ties said another benefit of crowdsourcing is that it aids in government transparency.
“I know that people throw around the terminology transparency in government,” Bertolini said. “But when you engage the public and you allow them to give input in what is considered a very simple way — go online and just drop your comments in — you are opening up your decision-making process and you’re making yourself more transparent. I believe that helps build public trust.”
This article is reprinted with permission from County News, the newsletter of the National Association of Counties.
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