Rob Macpherson’s crowdsourcing dos and don’ts

Online crowdsourcing has been hidden in the nooks and crannies of politics for long enough. The past few months have seen this democratic use of technology surge to the forefront of mainstream political dialogue. But if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Tory MP Douglas Carswell used his blog to crowdsource the first question of David Cameron’s initial PMQs… before continuing to raise House of Lords reform, a topic he himself has been trumpeting to anyone in the Tory party who would listen.

Meanwhile the public consultation that is the Treasury’s spending challenge suffered setback upon setback and has not done enough to create any real dialogue between government and citizen.

You can’t blame them and the countless other individuals, organisations and departments that are trying to get in on the mass participation act for trying.

For over four years Yoosk has been putting the public’s questions to politicians. It’s easy. People visit the site to ask their questions, vote on which ones they most want answered and we get the politician to answer the most popular ones before releasing the answers as video clips. It’s a simple but effective form of civic engagement. But if there were lessons to learn about how to successfully harness the power of crowdsourcing then we’ve learnt them the hard way. And if Labour, either in government or opposition, wants to do some harnessing of its own, then it should take note.

Involve targeted communities – not just the wider public: You’d sell more golf balls by going to a golf course than by standing in the street. In the same way, you will guarantee greater engagement by targeting online communities with an interest in your topic rather than the internet as a whole. Trying to promote to the general public is little better than standing on Oxford Street holding a ‘golf sale’ sign. Sure, some people may be swayed, but you’re more likely to be wasting your time by ignoring your target demographic.

The obvious first step is to tap into the online savvy and politically active readership of the blogosphere’s usual suspects like LabourList, Left Foot Forward or Lib Dem Voice. The latter also illustrates how we’ve developed widgets to make it as easy as possible for people to participate.

Aside from the main blogs there are countless other online communities bursting with questions and opinions that should be ignored at your peril. When then-shadow defence secretary Liam Fox crowdsourced questions with us from the Army Rumour Service, he got 60 good questions providing great insights and ideas.

Consult those communities about specific, narrowly defined areas: If you make it clear what you are asking of people, you are more likely to receive it. When we did the G20 exercise for the FCO we had several ministers and other leaders, including David Miliband and Bob Ainsworth, each answer about their specific areas from different communities. The end product was focused and concise leaving all parties happy with the time invested in the process.

Do a programme of little and often: On the internet, as in real life, products and ideas grow slowly and surely as people gradually buy into the concept and eventually decide to take the plunge themselves. There are few overnight success stories and for every Twitter or Facebook there are countless ghosts of web initiatives that shot for the moon and fell way short.

The Treasury’s spending challenge was a novel concept, but little more than an online pop-up shop. Instead, the government should have done one crowdsourcing feature a week for each government department and gradually built a base for future consultations. This is why we devise regular Yoosk features and separate channels such as the current section to keep each exercise separate but enable us to curate the content centrally.

Make it a conversation: Last, but definitely not least. The whole point of crowdsourcing is that the dialogue is no longer a one way street. So make sure that, once your participants have played their part, you continue to engage with them to keep the conversation going. Reply in a timely way to a fixed timetable and allow the public to respond, to understand what you are saying and how you are saying it. That is why seeking questions that users know will get answered gets more constructive participation than comments alone.

For an example of this, one has to look no further than the our own Labour leadership Yoosk hustings, which has received over 100 questions in its first week by encouraging Labour members and the public to put their questions to all five leadership candidates before putting the most popular ten to each candidate in video interviews by the end of August.

Visit now to add your question or vote on whose other questions you would most like to see answered.

Rob Macpherson is community manager of

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One Response to “Rob Macpherson’s crowdsourcing dos and don’ts”

  1. I realise it’s not the particular area your website covers, but have you got any thoughts on crowdsourcing in the sense of gathering information?

    It has potential utility for analysing legislation/parliamentary business, for electoral projections and analysis and for gathering material for use in campaigns (such as the efforts in the general election to get photos of Sure Start centres) but I don’t know how far you could take it in each area and what other applications there are. Anybody who knows more than me care to inform us all?

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