Harnessing the Wisdom of the Crowds

Experts don't come up with the best ideas. A large group of people is better at solving complex problems than an expert, no matter how brilliant.
May 3, 2006 AT 3:00 AM
Bill Eggers
By William D. Eggers  |  Contributor
Executive director of Deloitte's Center for Government Insights

One of the more interesting books I've read lately is James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. The book explores the delightfully anarchic idea that experts don't come up with the best ideas.

Surowiecki posits that a large group of people is better at solving complex problems than an expert, no matter how brilliant. There is a rider, of course -- the group should consist of independent, self-interested individuals working on a problem in a decentralized way, without any direction from the top down.

Reading the book got me to thinking about how these ideas can be applied to public policy. How can government agencies take decentralized, local knowledge and use it collectively to solve a public policy problem or improve a service?

Figuring this out is crucial because citizens, reared on the efficiency of the private sector, have begun to expect more from their governments. They expect more efficiency, better tailoring of services to individuals and groups, greater and easier access to services, and more information and transparency.

One of the best ways to meet citizens' rising expectations is to get them directly involved in designing government programs and services. Mirroring trends in the private sector, governments can use collaboration technologies not available just a few short years ago to harness the creativity of their constituents through focus groups, design sessions, hands-on testing, eDemocracy tools, and other means. At all stages of the policy process, from elections to policy development and implementation, citizens can be called upon to serve as partners in the innovation process.

When the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania was studying how to structure its redistricting plan, it asked for comments from parents -- and received over 500 e-mails on the plan. In Britain, local governments are engaging citizens in target-setting and performance evaluation through local partnership groups and online consultations. In Sweden, the city of Kalix created an "online town hall" to provide residents with an opportunity to help city planners redesign the city center.

The Australian Tax Office's "Listening to the Community" program aims to create a more user-friendly tax system by involving stakeholders at every stage in the design process. Through field visits, focus groups, prototype development and product testing, citizen input is being used to continually refine this system. The ATO has even created a simulation center where users and designers work together to troubleshoot problems and test products.

Governments wanting to improve innovation and decision-making in the public sector should build mechanisms to aggregate information and knowledge from diverse groups of citizens. This would have sounded utopian even a few years ago, but thanks to the Internet and other advanced technologies, it is eminently possible.

Consider the sophisticated 311 systems in place in cities such as Chicago and New York. Residents only have to call one number to be connected into a wide range of city services. Once they reach a customer service rep, which takes on average less than 10 seconds, they can file a complaint, request a trash pickup or report a pothole. By aggregating and analyzing the millions of pieces of data collected from 311 calls each month, 311-equipped cities can make better resource decisions and catch problems before they become crises.

The open-source software movement is another good example of harnessing the power of countless unrelated individuals to build and maintain complex world-class systems such as the Linux operating system and the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. The Education Ministry in Alberta, Canada, is applying the same open-source concept to education content. As the department develops course modules for online education, it puts them up on its Web site for anyone to download, with the expectation that teachers and any other interested parties will validate and improve the content.

Public participation in government will continue to grow in step with the need for creative and dynamic solutions in an increasingly fast changing world. Governments that recognize the value of such participation sooner rather than later can help save their communities a great deal of time, effort, and resources.