Brian Lamb: The questionable wisdom of asking the public to suggest spending cuts

The Treasury's crowdsourcing experiment is fraught with difficulty, says our columnist

When the Treasury set up its Spending Challenge website, which asked people for suggestions on how the government could deliver more for less, ministers made much of their efforts to involve the public in deciding how to manage the cuts.

This is only the latest attempt by the government to canvass the ideas of a different and bigger pool of people through 'crowdsourcing'. The idea, popularised by James Surowiecki's 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, is that aggregated individual decisions deliver better results than asking an expert. Find your means of aggregating views and you would stay ahead of the game, he argued.

Crowdsourcing has been used to secure mass engagement, collect views and information, and recruit people for charitable activities. It has become a must-have for charity campaigners who want to get people involved by tapping into the seemingly bottomless desire to contribute online.

For government, the experience of Spending Challenge has been salutary. Andrew Haldenby, director of the think tank Reform, bemoaned the early results, saying they reflected emotional prejudices rather than practical ideas. Ministers put a braver face on the results, but said pretty much the same thing.

The government's biggest problems with these kinds of conversations are gaining public trust and understanding that some issues work better than others. Collecting information tends to deliver more useful results than trying to aggregate views.

There are bigger concerns about crowdsourcing and its limitations. For every precious gem of policy insight, there are usually the views of 10 pub bores to wade through. It also raises the question: what about those without access or time to contribute?

Large volumes of opinions are not an analysis of anything unless all you want is a referendum. If such conversations are to work, they require participants to have a fairly common background and understanding of the issues and respect for each other. They also need a fairly structured debate, with clarity about what you are asking people to consider. Big questions on which betes noires to cut are likely to provoke emotion rather than analysis.

Attuned as we are in the voluntary sector to the need for beneficiary and supporter involvement, the reply we get will depend on how well we structure the conversation and how trusted we are to listen to answers.

- Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

FACT FILE - Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing involves outsourcing tasks to a crowd. It has become popular because of the capacity of the internet for interactivity.

The Treasury's Spending Challenge website generated more than 100,000 suggestions for reducing the deficit. It opened in July and closed for suggestions at the end of August.

Two-thirds of the suggestions have come from public sector employees.

Some ideas are expected to feature in Chancellor George Osborne's October spending review.

Suggestions included ending financial aid worth £10m to China and fining companies that don't complete roadworks on time.

The more frivolous ideas included the installation of treadmills in prisons that were connected to the national grid to produce electricity and that a tax should be introduced for people called Steve.

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