The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Petros Stefaneas, Prodromos Tsiavos, Theodoros Karounos: Failed Policies or Politics of Failure? The case of crowdsourcing initiatives in the Greek Public Administration as an instance

The promise of crowdsourcing as a mechanism for improving the quality of public service provision and deepening citizens’ participation to various stages of public administration’s decision making process is intensified but, also, yet to be fully realized. While the number of government-led crowdsourcing initiatives is steadily increasing, the question of the environment that needs to be created in order to maximize the benefits from such projects is emphatically posed. 

The key organizational model behind crowdsourcing, Commons Based Peer Production (CBPP) , , is itself placed between hierarchies and markets and, as such, requires for its assimilation by the governmental machinery a regulatory transition similar to the one we have witnessed during the 1980s and 1990s when experiencing the transition from the hierarchy- and government- based to the market and private sector public services. 

This is an exceptionally important development, especially as crowdsourcing gradually moves beyond the level of simple consultation and goes into the provision of e-government services or the production of infrastructure, which is what we increasingly see in the cases of hackathons for government e-services, infrastructure fixing initiatives or editathons for the improvement of public data and information. Such initiatives are markedly different from past initiatives, where open consultation was sought for public interest issues or when citizens’ participation was confined in civil society and charity ledprojects. 

The difference is both quantitative (the number of participants is much greater and not limited to formal organisations but individuals as well) and qualitative (there is much greater involvement and the services are of far greater importance for the operation of the government). Such initiatives are to a great extent the result of the open flows of government data that dramatically influence the fashion in which governmental departments organize their work and third parties could participate in the formation, organization and provision of e-government services. 

There has been substantial work with regards to the transformation of the state as a result of the ability of the administration to provide services not only through its own hierarchy but through the creation of different markets as more efficient and effective coordination forms (e.g. in the case of utilities, telecoms or financial services) or hybrid forms (e.g. Public Private Partnerships for the provision of infrastructure services). However, and despite the pioneering work of the British regulatory theory in assessing phenomena such as polycentric, smart or responsive regulation, there is still limited work with regards to the introduction of crowdsourcing and other forms of CBPP as a model for the public service provision through a regulatory framework.

In that respect, it is necessary to explore not only the models of crowdsourcing that operate smoothly, but also cases where crowdsourcing fails. It is in these cases of breakdown, where the internal workings of both the production model and the regulatory structures reveal themselves and allow us a better understanding of the crowdsourcing as such.

The main question that this paper explores is what is the nature of the regulatory intervention required in order to integrate CBPP models in a public sector regulatory model for the provision of e-government services.

In order to achieve this objective, this paper employs as its main heuristic a comparative examination ofkey crowdsourcing initiatives both in the UK and Greece over the period that coincides with that of the recent economic crisis in Europe. Crowdsourcing models have been portrayed both as methods to achieve broader participation to the workings of the administration and as a means to substantially reduce cost from the development and provision of public services. Research has shown that in the same way that the movement from the traditional hierarchical model to that of the market is one that substantially reduces the operational costs, the same is expected to happen when we have a move from the hierarchical or market to the commons base peer model.

Both the UK and Greek public administration has initiated a number of crowdsourcing projects, with or without the involvement of the civil society, ranging from the spotting of illegal signs and the identification of problems in the provision of public services, to the participation in the drafting of legal instruments, the development of web services for the provision of public sector information and the creation of communities of practice for public servants participating to the implementation of the e-government law. 

Such activities have had various degrees of success with regards to the level and intensity of participation, but in case of Greece, contrary to the UK experience, they were consistently incapable of achieving a meaningful result both in terms of deepening citizens’ participation and achieving the desired impact. While most of these crowdsourcing initiatives could be classified as failed projects, a closer examination reveals a much more complicated situation: each one of the crowdsourcing projects operated at multiple level, involving different stakeholders, humans and non-humans with multifarious and often conflicting interests that would not necessary coincide with the formal declarations of intent of the project. 

As a result, the success or not of a project cannot be assessed in a vacuum, but rather on the basis of the interests of the stakeholders, both humans and non-humans involved in the crowdsourcing process. In order to make such an assessment, the paper explores the boundaries of the commons based peer production as expressed in eight key UK and Greek crowdsourcing and open innovation projects: (a) Greece OpenLabs Gov (b) GSIS web service (c) Open Gov consultations and (d) the Illegal Signs as well as (a) the FixMyStreet Project (b) the WhatWorks Network (c) the UK Rewired State project and (d) the Red Tape Challenge. For each of the project, we collect data from multiple sources, such as interviews, policy and legislative documents, and a techno-regulatory analysis of the relevant information infrastructures. Such data are then analysed on the basis of the constituent elements of the commons based peer production model, namely granularity, modularity and heterogeneity as well as in relation to the cost for the participant and the integrator of the contributions. The analysis aims at making clear both the regulatory instruments that make the functioning of the CBPP model possible and to identify the degree to which such a model is operational in the four case studies examined in the paper, both in terms of content/ information and value flows. 

The paper argues that while the basic CBPP model views any production problem as one of reducing frictions rather than producing incentives, and in that sense it is differentiated from the traditional incentives models appearing in regimes of exclusion, such as classic IPR models, the practice shows that we need a much more sophisticated understanding of CBPP if we are to see how such a model could be implemented in the context of public service provision. As we have seen in the case of the transposition of open data models from the EU to the Greek context, the cultivation of a regulatory ecology to support such an initiative is necessary to achieve the desired results. Moreover, the failure of the crowdsourcing policies in Greece reveals the existence of a regulatory structure that creates conditions that by definition hinder open and commons based initiatives. The paper concludes by presenting our key findings in terms both of the nature of the regulatory environment required in order to maximize benefits from a crowdsourcing policy but also of the nature of the failure of such policies in cases where such environment is not in place. The failure of crowdsourcing policies is not the result of tactic constellations of interests or the less than optimal organization of the Greek Public Administration but rather the result of a regulatory structure, both technology and social norm based, that objects to formal policies as it thrives from and in the politics of failure.

Petros Stefaneas, Prodromos Tsiavos, Theodoros Karounos