In crowds we trust?

6 January 2010

Last week Politiek Online had its first get-together in a series of diner conversations, theme for the evening: E-participation (soup with gremola, duck, cucumber salad, a glass of wine and other home made pleasantries).

Why is it that we trust in Wikipedia, but shrug at the outcomes of discussions with citizens?
At least three diner guests immediately started summarizing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki: crowds are good at number guessing: pies in a pot, how much does the pig at the fair weigh, where is my lost submarine? That sort of thing: where educated, independent guesses are all thrown on a big heap and then divided by the number of people that made a suggestion. The outcome, surprisingly, is better than any of the single solutions offered. You can apparently try this at the office by holding your own elections for parliament. Empirical proof in a government organisation has it that the wisdom of crowds is more knowledgeable than the colleague who’s a real insider.

So, if crowds are great, why the suspicion when it comes to debate with citizens? And how can a government get in touch with it’s citizens in a world of web 2.0 abundance?
First of all, Wikipedia is not just about the crowd. Sure: almost anyone can write an entry or change one. But there’s a whole flock of experts ready to discuss the rightness of an entry. Wikipedia is not just crowd based, it’s also a strict expert system. We trust Wikipedia for certain knowledge: e.g. most info on rocket science is probably correct, because this is niche knowledge that concerns experts. On the other hand: info on Tibet is probably unreliable. Because so many people have different views, which are often based on opinion.

As is the case in discussions with citizens: we don’t know who they are and suspect that most of them act on an NIMBY instinct (not in my back yard). Anyone who’s ever been to one of those neighbourhood evenings knows there are always a few types that need to get something of their chest. That has been frustrating them for a long time. And is not constructive for the debate.

So what makes a constructive way for governments to get involved in discussions with citizens?
Well, bring in the web 2.0 cavalry, but don’t forget to be analogue when needed. One of the ways that worked for diner guests present, was online communities. E.g. a web based community on horse caretaking for a project for the ministry of Agriculture. Or what about the recent initiative of two moms who collected signatures to promote an earlier night live? The initiative was rejected by parliament because the signatures were digital, and not ink on paper. Also many neighbourhoods have their own hyves.

Most guests found it intruding if ‘the government’, e.g. Klaas who works at the Ministry of Education, would participate in such a community. But if Klaas knew about he hyve and politely emailed to ask some of its members to come by to talk, that would be five by five. Then they could have very web 0.0 conversations about a topic that concerns both parties. Government would get insight in what drives citizens, citizens feel heared by government. Great solutions not guaranteed, but compelling.

Auteur: Joanne van den Eijnden

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This text has a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) and has been copied from the Kennisland website. For a full version with images, streamers and notes go to