John Klossner

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Crowdsourcing saves the day in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

When thinking about federal workplace practices, it's always helpful to refer to fictional characters and stories for information. I've been thinking about a remake of the classic 1939 Frank Capra film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (Can you believe the entire movie is online? This is why I love the Internet. Also, isn't watching "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" online on a Sunday morning the same as sitting with the Sunday N.Y. Times? My wife and I disagree on this point.) Specifically, what changes would have to be made in the storyline in order to acknowledge modern technologies and sensibilities? I offer the following:
  • Would such a naive character be believable in our present-day culture, other than as satire? It would become a Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler project, played for laughs. Maybe Tina Fey could bring a serious angle to the remake.
  • In an updated version, wouldn't Sen. Smith call the power brokers' bluff, claim the land as his, and build his boys' camp and a casino on it, turning a huge profit?
  • The classic fedora scene, a close-up on Jimmy Stewart's hands fumbling with his fedora while talking to the attractive daughter of Sen. Paine — how would this be handled? Fumbling with his/her BlackBerry? Nervously running his/her fingers along his/her tattoos?

But the scene I want to reference from the movie is when Sen. Paine (Claude Rains), the senior senator from the same state as Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart’s character), brings in the baskets of telegrams calling for Sen. Smith to end his filibuster and resign. In my remake, Sen. Paine will reference the Twitter feeds and blog comments they've been receiving from constituents.

Was this the first media reference to crowdsourcing? From a recent FCW piece: "New Web 2.0 tools and social-media technology — such as blogs, wikis and ... ideas application(s) — make crowdsourcing possible. Agencies can use Web applications like an interactive suggestion box that is unbound by time or geographical constraints. Crowdsourcing tools are not a substitute for elections, referendum questions or face-to-face public meetings, but they are a tool public officials can use to gauge opinion and solicit input."

I have mixed feelings about crowdsourcing. I worry about where soliciting ideas ends and leadership begins. I worry about how you create borders for a submission community. I worry about the time and manpower — possibly taken from other jobs — needed to sort through and account for every idea submitted, no matter how undeveloped. I worry about the point at which the "crowd" sourced becomes too big for the process. And, to keep with my fictional references, what happens if and when the crowd is manipulated with misinformation? Hello, birthers.

In my world, crowdsourcing has become a derivative of outsourcing. There are numerous "projects" now, where companies are soliciting ideas and offering prizes, with the majority of submitters receiving no compensation for their expertise. In the creative and technology professions, there have been numerous complaints about the crowdsourcing format, ranging from Google soliciting free artwork from top illustrators to the argument that, in certain fields, crowdsourcing is no more than unpaid spec work.

Crowdsourcing can be considered a way of doing a project cheaply. Instead of bringing in experts to look at the problem, you let "the crowd" solve it. For someone with professional expertise who makes a living at this, where is the attraction? Crowdsourcing might allow for the discovery of an unthought-of idea — kind of like winning the lottery — but how do you guarantee that the most qualified individuals will participate? Is it crowdsourcing? Or a pie bake-off?

That said, crowdsourcing might be a better fit with government work. There is an established community filled with people with a wide variety of experiences and expertise in the fields at hand. Cultivate ideas from the community at large, pick the better ideas and develop them into a workable solution. This allows everyone to have a voice and the best idea/solutions to come to the surface.

But haven't the people with good ideas already been included in the process? Do we want a bunch of folks at the cafe/bar/Internet throwing out ideas? Really? As opposed to people who have made public policy their life's work and have résumés full of public and private-industry experience?

It would seem to me that the people who have expertise in these fields are already involved, and opening it up to more public input might make for a filing mess. Also, are there any parameters on the ideas submitted? When does the contributing community become too large? When do we have too many ideas to prevent sorting through them in a feasible time frame? What is the delineation of leadership?

I'm not against getting as many people involved as possible. But if you got a bunch of my friends together to brainstorm ideas for better policy, I'm guaranteeing you that the majority of our ideas wouldn't exactly pass muster on the sanity scale. Just as, when we run the occasional FCW cartoon caption contest, the majority of entries wouldn't pass muster on the humor scale. As an early example of crowdsourcing, the Open Government Dialogue flirted with the boundaries between useful, inclusive and off the wall. I'd love to have lunch with the people whose jobs were to sort through all the suggestions and see what they think about crowdsourcing.

Or, instead of lunch, we could go to the movies.

I created a couple different cartoons on the topic, both playing with the leadership's role in the issue. Same point, different illustrations.

Klossner crowdsourcing

Klossner crowdsourcing

Posted by John Klossner on Dec 15, 2009 at 12:19 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Dec 18, 2009 Molly Flatt London

Spartacus provides a pretty good movie crowdsourcing model too. It's an interesting post and I'm equally wary of the lazy assumptions behind crowdsourcing nowadays - though most of the brands and organisations I know using that approach do employ various sorts of targeting, reviewing and refining to add some judgement and rigour into the process. More thoughts here:

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