The Wisdom of Crowds, Collaborative Networks & Public Policy

Crowd Ideas

Over the last few years, concepts like collaboration, the wisdom of crowds and collaborative networks have taken hold as innovative ways for involving large groups of people to help solve complicated public policy problems. However, the terms are often used so loosely that they’re in danger of being lumped together and, in effect, dismissed, especially in the public sector, with the comforting assurance that “we’ve been doing that all along.”

That may be partly true, but these forms of collaboration are not just group structures for problem-solving. The structure is simply the means to a specific end: successful adaptation to rapid change. Government in general has a lot to learn about adaptation at the institutional level. Discussion about how to make use of collaboration is taking place everywhere, especially on the internet. This post – and future ones – are part of that overall dialogue. Everyone concerned about the future of public policy and government action should join in.

The Wisdom of Crowds

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argued that large groups of people – acting in a specific way – can often solve problems more creatively and effectively than individuals acting alone. While the positive side of consulting the wisdom of crowds has gotten most of the attention, Surowiecki also explored several reasons that crowds fail to behave in this creative, productive way. As he puts it, the alternative to crowd wisdom can be crowd irrationality.

What is the potential for strengthening public policy by turning to the crowd of the citizenry for answers? In consulting a public that behaves in the distinctive way identified by Surowiecki, is government likely to encounter the crowd at its best or worst?

What Is a Crowd?

Here is Surowiecki’s list of the characteristics that must prevail within a crowd in order for it to function creatively and wisely:

  • Diversity. The crowd should be diverse and include people with a wide range of experience, knowledge, values and opinions.

  • Independence. People form their ideas and opinions without reference to those of others in the crowd.

  • Decentralization. Each person focuses on whatever is of interest and relies on personal knowledge.

  • Aggregation. All the independent judgments need to go through a further process that results in a decision.

  • To quote the summary of one of Surowiecki’s presentations:

    … [G]roups are typically smartest when the people in them act as much like individuals as possible–when they rely primarily on their own private information, when their opinions are independent, and when their judgments are not determined by their peers. And in an ever-more connected world, this creates a challenge: how can we reap the benefits of collaboration and collective decision-making, while still ensuring that people remain independent actors? Are networks problems as well as solutions? What might it mean to be too connected?

    This view runs counter to the recent trend of looking to collaborative networks as the answer to many public policy problems. How do the crowd and the network compare?

    Crowds and Collaborative Networks

    For Surowiecki, the crowd does not function as a group at all but only as so many individuals with loose or no connections among them. That permits each person to reach conclusions and offer new ideas entirely as an individual. The crowd is most creative, then, when its members are unrelated. If they do have close connections, Surowiecki believes they will tend to think alike and produce uniform views, suspending independent judgment.

    A collaborative network, as Charles Leadbeater explains, takes advantage of intricate sets of relationships among members to produce results. In this view, it is the exchange of ideas that leads to greater creativity because of the diversity of the network members. The more actively information flows among the connected individuals, the greater the likelihood of innovation.

    There is also a basic difference between the two in the way decisions result from the multiplicity of ideas. The crowd comes into being in response to a request from an agency of some kind. Since the crowd has no internal structure, individuals can only direct their ideas to the group that issued the request. That agency interprets the results to find the smartest and best answer among the many suggestions. This is a hub-and-spoke pattern in which all the individuals are connected to a central actor but have no connections among themselves.

    The collaborative network does this filtering and decision-making internally and functions as an independent entity. That is because there are always members who devote more time and effort to the process than others. They tend to form a core group that works on sifting and integrating ideas so that a decision can be reached and action taken.

    However, this structure is very different from the management level in a hierarchical organization. There are no formal leaders or defined levels of authority. Anyone in the network is free to step up the level of involvement and join that core group, just as anyone may reduce involvement. It is all voluntary. They key dynamic is not the flow of power but the flow of information that keeps everyone informed and encourages a continuing circulation of ideas.

    Network connections, then, do not stifle originality of thinking and operate very differently from an organized advocacy group. Advocacy organizations recruit like-minded people and thrive by building an influential mass of supporters backing a dominant ideology. The rules of membership are intended to keep people of sharply differing values and opinions.

    Where’s the Real Public?

    Surowiecki’s concern about individuals losing independence of judgment as they get closely connected to others is widely shared. The perennial problem for government agencies is how to use public involvement processes to hear what the “real” citizens have to say. It is the organized interest groups that tend to dominate public hearings and meetings, not independent citizens. Advocacy group members come to such events to support proposals and organizational positions – not to present their own unique ideas.

    Public officials often regard interest groups as separate from the “genuine” public, and by that they mean what Surowiecki is describing – citizens who form opinions based on whatever knowledge they possess and who don’t simply follow an organizational position.

    The Deliberative Democracy movement also attempts to get around the influence of the advocacy groups to focus on the judgment of independent citizens. Many of the deliberative processes confine the role of advocates to offering information as part of an effort to inform participating citizens of the full range of views about the policy problem under consideration.

    As Surowiecki emphasizes, there are big differences among the types of connections people form to influence policy. But the tension is not between network relationships and crowd (lack of) relationships. It is membership and other formally governed organizations that seek out only people with shared values – and that is important to serve the goals they aim for. Crowds and networks, on the other hand, thrive on the greatest possible diversity.

    Both can be powerful engines of creativity in seeking successful adaptation to change.

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