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Government - Written by on Wednesday, July 7, 2010 14:47 - 6 Comments

Thomas Gegenhuber
When lobbyists don’t matter

When governments think about using crowdsourcing instruments like the participatory budget model of Freiburg or platforms like Manorlabs one of the biggest concern is: How can we prevent that lobby groups or the opposition uses this tool for their purposes?

First, the extent of this concern is dependent on the environment in which the government operates. In local governments in Europe, like in Austria and Germany, political parties play a major role. In North America, party politics play a less significant role on local level. However, the bigger the city, the more important the issue of partisan politics and the interests of lobby groups become. Well organized, lobby groups and opposition can make mountains out of molehills on a crowdsourcing platform. A government, which refuses to take care about an issue that has gained acceptance on a crowdsourcing platform, is likely to be grilled by the media. The headline: “Government does not listen to ordinary citizens”. Subhead: “Electronic participation served solely PR interests of government”. So my first answer would be: In an environment where a government or the ruling party fears that crowdsourcing could be exploited by the opposition for partisan politics there is one remedy: The activists of your own party should be active on the platform as well. Fight out the competition of ideas on the platform.

However, I think the core issue is the fundamental principle of representative democracy. We elect politicians e.g. every four years, which should represent the will of the citizens. Citizens can hold the politician accountable within the democratic system. Admittedly, this system is not perfect. I believe that democracy is more than casting a ballot once a time. Politicians should harness the wisdom of the crowd to improve government public policy and services. Although we can’t neglect that lobby groups or opposition could use these tools to push their agenda. Politicians also have to think about the interests of those people who do not participate in the crowdsourcing process. The reason for this might be digital divide, less awareness, less interest, or simply lack of time. In other words, politicians have to represent all citizens, not only those who participated on a crowdsourcing platform.

Key issue: participation rate

I had a look at the participation rate of the participatory budget models. In Freiburg, the participation rate was 0.84 % (still higher than having town hall meetings about the budget, the rate was in that case 0.09 %). The City of Solingen used crowdsourcing to get support and understanding for an austerity budget. They used the participatory budget model to collect suggestions from citizens on how to save public money. According to the homepage sohlingen-spart.de („Solingen economizes“), over 3,600 citizens – 2 % of the population -agreed on saving 31 Million Euros. In the Brazilian town Belo Horizonte the participation rate in participatory budget process was at almost 10 %. Admittedly these rates are certainly higher than in any other participatory process. But the lower the percentage of participation, the higher the chance that lobbying groups and interest groups can influence the opinion on the platform. Dustin Haisler, the CIO of Manor, told me that approximately 30 % of the population is using Manorlabs. Although Manorlabs does not include participatory budget, the high participation rate is astonishing.

Naumi and I have the hypothesis that the higher participation rate of citizens, the less the influence of lobby groups. We created following graph:

The assumption is that the influence of the population grows at a much faster rate because they are a much larger percentage of the population.  The “back-of-the-napkin” assumption is that 15 % of the population is somehow affiliated with a lobby group or opposition party and all of them participate. So, once you reach participation rate of about 30 %, the voice of the public evens out the lobbyists.  As overall participation increases, overall bias from lobbyists decreases even more.

If this hypothesis is true, what would that mean for governments? First, think about the environment you are in. Second, mobilize your own activists in case you operate in a harsh environment. Third, make every effort to create a high participation rate. To achieve this, you must develop an incentive model that attracts the engagement of citizens.


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Storytelling Social Media Marketing PR Business & Technology Curated Stories July 7, 2010
Jul 7, 2010 18:12

[...] It is the participation rate, stupid? Published: July 7, 2010 Source: Wikinomics When governments think about using crowdsourcing instruments like the participatory budget model of Freiburg or platforms like Manorlabs one of the biggest concern is: How can we prevent that lobby groups or th… [...]

Tiago (@participatory)
Jul 8, 2010 6:01

One of the problems with this approach is to define what is the correct threshold 1%, 10%, 50% or 15% as you suggest. Also, how to differentiate a lobby group from a legitimate preference expressed by a small group of the population (e.g. 2% of inhabitants who do not have access to health facilities) ?

Obviously, there are benefits associated with increased turnout in self-selection process. But if the ultimate goal is to reduce bias or to have an accurate representation of preferences of the larger public, a much easier solution is to actively engage a limited number of participants through random selection.

Thomas Gegenhuber
Jul 9, 2010 12:34

@tiago: You raise some interesting points here. As mentioned, this is a “back-of-the-napkin” model, therefore it is not perfect. We just wanted to highlight, that “for participation to be inclusive, ‘it must ensure that all voices are heard, not just the loudest’.” (http://www.soton.ac.uk/ccd/events/SuppMat/Beyond%20the%20Ballot.pdf, p.108). From my perspective, it is more likely that a lobby group (with plenty of financial ressources) is better organized than the 2 % of have a legitimate preference. Anyhow, I agree it is still difficult to differentiate.
I have to think about the idea of “engaging a limited number of participants through random selection”. Do you have good examples for this selection process in combination with crowdsourcing instruments?

Weekly bits of interest – 12 July 2010 | Innovation Blog
Jul 11, 2010 20:10

[...] [...]

Jul 13, 2010 4:07

To ensure that “all voices are heard” in open selection process is not necessarily achieved by increasing the number of participants. You might have 99% of citizens engaged with 1 % of the population – with very legitimate demands – excluded from the process. This is, in my opinion, a problem with the model that you propose. In practice, aware of this problem inherent to open selection processes, practitioners try to minimize the problem by targeted outreach activities and well designed deliberative processes.

As to random selection, an offline experience of this type is Columbia’s Citizens Assembly on electoral reform. You can find a reference to the initiative in Graham’s paper that you have referenced. For an online experiment using the same principle, here’s another paper by the same author http://www.civicbehaviour.org.uk/documents/Deliberationandinternetengagement18Augv4ECPR.pdf

Finally, I think there is a technological problem that is often underestimated: how to source preferences from a broader public. For instance, there is very little evidence that the use of “crowdsourcing” tools currently used by many governments (e.g. Ideascale, uservoice) are actually able to do what they are expected to. In fact, existing evidence suggests the opposite. In this case, increasing the number of participants will not make a great difference on the final quality of a process.

Thomas Gegenhuber
Jul 13, 2010 17:37

@tiago: Thanks for the response. The paper is now on the top of my (long) reading list. I am also grateful for links of papers about the flaws of crowdsourcing tools.

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