Government as a Platform – Harnessing Collective Intelligence

For government agencies seeking to understand and plan their Digital Government transformation journey, there are two main scopes of change to consider:

  • Digital Service Enablement – Digitizing transactional workflows, moving them online but not changing how the process works.
  • Collective Intelligence Transformation – Reinventing the process to a community operating model.

Digital Service Enablement

The core building block is digitizing offline processes, moving paper-based forms workflow online so citizens can self-serve their own requirements.

This makes them more convenient for users and as insights from the SOCITM Better Connected report series described there are considerable cost efficiency improvements, highlighting a ‘Cost To Serve’ ratio that explains how much each different Citizen CRM channel costs:

  • Face to face : £7.40
  • Telephone: £2.90
  • Web: 32p

This is a hugely powerful win/win. Citizens can be spared the drudgery of visiting offices, repeatedly filling in paper-based forms, and government can be spared all the expense required to process them.

It’s not an insignificant task however. GovTech writes about how services have been moved online but still users still phone in their enquiries, and how they can’t easily determine what the reasons for this are including the usability of the service. This is a universal challenge, with fewer than half of newly designed UK council web sites passing a SOCITM usability test and in the USA Federal agencies accounted for five of the 10 worst customer service providers across 21 leading industries.

Collective Intelligence – Platform Business Models

While this digitization clearly delivers big benefits, it’s not truly transformational. The process is moved online but its operating model, who and how it is acted upon, stays the same. Alan Mather describes how the UK’s GDS lacks this broader perspective by focusing only on the digital service enablement.

Providing online access to government systems is of course the foundation component, but this only addresses the transactional aspects of government and fails to exploit the fundamental characteristic and benefit of today’s web technology: The ability to implement and build communities that harness the power of ‘Collective Intelligence‘.

MIT published a paper ‘Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence‘ (20-page PDF) that distills the key mechanics of this science, and NESTA recently published a paper that applies the science to government –Governing with Collective Intelligence.

The business community defines it as the ‘Platform Business Model’, exemplified through ventures like Uber Taxis and Aribnb, with the primary characteristic being the implementation of Digital Ecosystems, dynamic supplier communities meshed together through social and mobile applications.

A number of case studies illustrate this potential for public sector applications and the key transformation tools and techniques:

Social Media and Citizen Journalism

Harvard introduces the overall effect through defining Digital Government is the new social network, describing how pioneers like New York and Chicago are calling upon the tech sector to “help them build a platform more akin to Facebook than 311 as we know it.”

In an age of mass enablement of citizens through smart phones and social media and the vast data ecosystems they create via sites like Facebook, Twitter et al, there is near unlimited potential to harness them to publish communications, interact with citizens and also tap these massive pools of real-time information for new insights.

In Building the Social Town Hall, they chart an evolving maturity that advances from simple outbound announcements, through an interactive service interface to an ultimate conclusion of ‘Social Democracy’. In #CityHall on Social Media they expand on this critical point that social media is primarily about enabling two-way conversations.

Moreover the platform can be directed towards specific government needs, such as policing, through harnessing the public as an active resource. In Vancouver, following the riot by hockey fans thousands of civilian “journalists” submitted videos, photographs, and tips to the VPD over the next months, providing an unprecedented amount of evidence on the incident.

The police in Huntingdon Beach employed ‘social listening’ techniques to analyze social media to identify likely hot spots for crime. NYC utilized it for public health purposes, analyzing Yelp reviews to pin point sources of food poisoning.

Social Mapping

Mapping is a powerful tool for engaging interactively with location-oriented data naturally, so especially relevant to cities and local authorities, and when combined with the community platform models, the key to unlocking truly transformational, citizen-driven digital government.

For example the HealthMap, developed by a team of researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital in 2006, brings together data from online news aggregators and social media platforms to produce real-time intelligence on the current global state of infectious diseases.

Los Angeles Clean Streets initiative is effectively addressing street cleanliness using the power of data and mapping. Los Angeles Sanitation (LASAN) uses the data to identify abandoned waste hotspots and improve deployment of cleanup crews.

Civic Crowdfunding and Social Cities

Combining open data with citizen participation can unlock dynamic new models for transforming local communities, for example cataloging blighted properties could be further enhanced with crowdfunding projects to revitalize them for community needs, engendering both better civic engagement and also leveraging new financing models for cash strapped authorities.

San Francisco describes this as ‘Citizensourcing‘, a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community. In Rotterdam citizens used a crowdfunding campaign to signal to government the need for a new footbridge to connect two parts of the city cut off by a busy road and railway line. The bridge project, called Luchtsingel, then attracted funding from the city government in order to complete it.

Next Bengaluru, an initiative by an NGO in Bangalore used online and offline methods to create a community vision for the redevelopment of one neighbourhood in the city. Between December 2014 and March 2015, 600 ideas were submitted by residents. A key outcome of the campaign was the identification of abandoned urban spaces as a major source of concern for residents as they are often used as places to dump rubbish. Residents were then asked to help create an online map of these spaces, to start a conversation with city officials about what could be done about them.

Digital Democracy

These scenarios demonstrate the first steps on a path towards wholesale reinvention of government, an entirely Digital Democracy. Citizens will play a much more direct role in the decision making and implementation of public services.

Potent use cases include participative budgeting. In 2014, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo launched Madame Mayor, I have an idea, a participatory budgeting exercise which will allocate €500 million to projects proposed by citizens between 2014 and 2020, and claims to be the largest exercise of its kind in the world.

New tools have emerged to enable this collective government, in particular open source software such as Loomio, used by the FairShares Association, a grouping of social enterprises, to propose, debate and make decisions about a range of issues, and the the German Pirate Party uses LiquidFeedback for internal party decisions and elections.

Process Transformation

In conclusion governments don’t need to reinvent democracy today to harness these powerful dynamics for their more immediate needs, they can be applied for very practical benefit to their core business process needs, especially for complex, high volume scenarios that require expertise not easily available in government.

An insightful example is the Peer to Patent portal, which applies the effect to the USPTO’s patent application process, a workflow that requires important decisions on a huge variety of scientific and technical topics, that must reference a history of equally academic prior decisions. It illustrates how Open Government is not just about more open reporting for people to passively look at, it’s actually about re-engineering the process itself, to deliver considerable efficiency improvements and critically, enable more open public participation.

Pioneered by Open Government leader Beth Noveck, the project is documented via a detailed case study in this 40 page Harvard white paper. Beth describes how the agency was building up a huge backlog of patent applications due to a ‘closed’ approach where only staff from the USPTO could review, contribute and decide upon applications.

Not only did this cause a bottleneck due to the number of resources being utilised but also in terms of the volume and quality of subject matter expertise being applied. With no involvement from outside contributors, such as experts from the scientific community, then awards were being granted for applications based on very limited and often inaccurate knowledge.

Peer to Patent transformed this to a ‘crowd’ model, opening up the workflow to a distributed community of experts from across many different organisations, and apply collective efforts to greatly increase both quality and speed. IBM provides a detailed overview in this video, and this intro from Audiopedia provides a laymans guide.

Open sourcing best practices

The hyper accelerating dimension is the use of open source software, itself a product of collective intelligence, to distribute these capabilities as reusable best practices. Inventive new ways to tackle a particular social problem can be developed in the USA where considerable funding and skills are available to do so, and then reused across the world where they have the same issues but not those same resources.

Beth Noveck explored the massive potential of benefit this offers governments the world over, describing it for scenarios such as Community Impact Investing, and also the huge benefits that are possible through Open Grantmaking in Practice.

Fundamentally these improvements translate into more social impact and value for money, through more efficient sharing of best practices. As Beth describes:

“In practice, this means that if a community college wins a grant to create a videogame to teach how to install solar panels, everyone will have the benefit of that knowledge. They will be able to play the game for free. In addition, anyone can translate it into Spanish or Russian or use it as the basis to create a new game to teach how to do a home energy retrofit.”

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