Advances in technological capability and widespread adoption mean that the Internet has become a cost-effective medium, both for disseminating information and for collecting ideas from an informed public that is no longer content to be passive recipients of government policy. Some developed societies have explored open government approaches, where government data is released to the public through the Internet and other channels, both to enhance public sector transparency and accountability, and to empower the public to develop useful applications that make innovative use of the data to improve civic life.
Such crowdsourcing strategies, pioneered by the private sector to tap the collective intelligence of their public user base, were first explored by governments in engaging their business communities. Open government and crowdsourcing have since become part of the evolution of government-citizen interactions that have been enabled by technological advances. Nevertheless, these approaches both depend on and help to nurture an evolving culture of greater transparency, trust, participation and open collaboration between government and citizens, unlocking collective resources beyond those available to the public sector.
PRINCIPLES AND CHALLENGES
Open government and public crowdsourcing approaches have numerous benefits: they engage citizens, enable social innovation and enhance institutional legitimacy. They can significantly improve the quality of public outcomes without necessarily incurring higher costs, as citizens participate in the determination and delivery of results (both at the government-citizen and citizen-citizen levels) towards shared priorities. Data transparency and rapid feedback can make public service systems more robust. Over time, these benefits may accrue towards a more resilient society, with citizens more directly involved in the collective concerns of their community.
However, these approaches also present their own challenges. First, there is the task of selecting what to release from the vast store of data held by the government; there are legitimate concerns over data quality, security and privacy. Second, the risk of the released data and information being misconstrued and misused by citizens might result in citizen-developed applications that do not accurately reflect actual conditions. This means that the government has to be clear on how the data is intended be used, with appropriate caveats. Third, there is a need to frame public issues in ways that promote broad collaboration, and to sieve the signals from the noise so that crowdsourced initiatives are not captured by narrow interests. Last, equal representation needs to be ensured so that the concerns of groups who do not participate in social media channels or Internet platforms (due to the lack of digital access or other social factors) are not excluded.
The success of open government and crowdsourcing efforts also depends critically on public involvement. Citizens have to see themselves as active participants rather than individual consumers of public policies and services. At the same time, they need to appreciate that the business of government is complex, with inevitable trade-offs and compromises.
Open Government and Crowdsourcing Initiatives in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada
UNITED STATES (US)
The Open Government Directive was initiated by the Obama administration in December 2009 to increase civic participation and engagement1 and create a culture of transparency, participation and collaboration across US Federal agencies. It stipulates four broad guidelines.
UNITED KINGDOM (UK)
The UK has set up www.data.gov.uk16 to consolidate government data in a single searchable website. The goal is to "help people understand how government works and how policies are made." To date, there are over 5,400 datasets searchable through the website, from across government departments and local authorities. Citizen developers can download "raw datasets" to create and share applications for public use. Feedback, comments, recommendations, suggestions and requests are also actively solicited.
Unlike the US and UK, Canada lacks a government-led centralised open data website. However, some citizens have taken the lead in pushing for more open and accessible government.
Singapore's data.gov.sg was launched in June 2011 as a "first-stop portal to search and access publicly-available data".
It currently offers over 5,000 datasets from 50 government ministries and agencies.
Singapore's technical infrastructure, small size and high internet adoption rates suggest promising conditions for considering open government and crowdsourcing approaches. Such initiatives and their working processes should be carefully structured to meaningfully engage citizens and harness their contributions in ways that translate into better decision-making and perceptibly improved outcomes. Initial efforts to generate awareness, gather support and encourage participation from the public will be critical.
For governments and citizens to truly create public value by building on each other's contributions, a climate of mutual respect and a sense of shared ownership are vital. The good news is that these initiatives, when managed well, can help deepen the confidence and trust necessary for future efforts. New ways of framing roles, new skill sets and aptitudes of Singapore public officers and citizens, as well as new rules of engagement, may need to be developed, before the full potential of these approaches can be unlocked.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jairus Yip was a research intern at the Centre for Governance and Leadership, Civil Service College from May to July 2011. He is currently a third year Political Science student at the National University of Singapore. His research interests include public administration in Singapore.